.Opposition growing against Marin City housing project 

The fight against a controversial affordable housing development planned for Marin City has gained momentum since the for-profit developer made insulting remarks about community members.

The fallout was swift for real estate developer Alexis Gevorgian, of AMG & Associates, who told the Pacific Sun last month that residents of the historically Black neighborhood are communists wanting free handouts. Gevorgian also dismissed concerns that the five-story, 74-unit development with only 24 parking spots will tax the overburdened infrastructure of the densely populated area.

Elected officials and residents across Marin County denounced Gevorgian and the development at 825 Drake Ave., which received county approval in November 2020. The day after the Pacific Sun article was published, Gevorgian turned the reins over to another partner in the project, Caleb Roope of The Pacific Companies.

On April 12, Roope met with the Marin City community for three hours. While Roope apologized for his partner’s behavior, he also blamed Gevorgian for all of the project’s alleged faults: bad design, insufficient parking, unaffordable rents and poor community relations.

Roope has been associated with the project almost since its inception, although he claimed that he didn’t pay attention to the details until after Gevorgian’s significant faux pas. The partners have worked together on 40 projects, and there has never been a problem before, according to Roope.

“I just got involved 10 days ago,” said Roope, whose company is based in Eagle, Idaho. “Normally, all this [the architectural planning and community engagement] is done, and we show up and move forward.”

Many residents and their supporters remain skeptical. 

“Roope is just lipstick on a pig,” said Barbara Bogard, a Marin City advocate.

Efforts are now underway on several fronts to stop the project. Save Our City, a group formed to oppose the development, would like to work out an amicable resolution with Roope and the county, but has attorneys standing by.

Assemblymember Damon Connolly isn’t surprised that Roope wasn’t able to drum up any support.

“I have told the developer in no uncertain terms that they have poisoned the well with this community by demonstrating racial animus and a failure to understand the history and needs of this community,” Connolly said in an email. “…After listening to the community and hearing their perspective, I have significant doubts that this project will move forward.”

The development presents bigger problems than Gevorgian, according to critics. It’s downright dangerous to add 182 new residents—a population increase of 6.2%—to Marin City, a neighborhood rife with serious infrastructure issues.

Not only is 825 Drake Ave. in a state-designated high fire hazard zone, but the area is also prone to flooding. Public safety issues are compounded because there’s only one road in and out of Marin City.

An outright purchase of the property, preferably by the county or a nonprofit, would be the quickest way to put the brakes on the project. Or the county could do a land swap with the developers.

AMG & Associates, Gevorgian’s company, ignored inquiries by a local nonprofit to discuss buying 825 Drake Ave. When the Pacific Sun contacted Gevorgian via text message to ask about the issue, he responded, “I’m no longer involved.”

However, Roope confirmed that Gevorgian’s company still owns the one-acre property, which it purchased for $2.5 million.

Roope says his firm, The Pacific Companies, has a contract with an option to purchase the property from Gevorgian for $2.5 million. But Roope will only buy the property if his financing from multiple sources comes through.The development is projected to cost nearly $57 million.

So far, so good for Roope. The Marin County Board of Supervisors recently approved the issuance of $40 million in tax-exempt state bonds for the project.

But therein lies the rub in selling the property to the county or a nonprofit. Roope competed with other real estate developers for the tax-exempt bonds. If he doesn’t build the 74 affordable housing units, the state will penalize him on future applications to finance other developments, according to Roope.

A 1031 exchange, more commonly known as a land swap, could possibly work for Roope, allowing him to use the state financing on a project located elsewhere in Marin County. Stephanie Moulton-Peters, the county supervisor representing Southern Marin, is interested in the idea. Even so, both parties acknowledge it may be difficult finding an appropriate property where Roope could build a similar housing complex.

“My first choice is to try to figure out how to make this project work,” Roope said in an interview with the Pacific Sun. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have the window on what was happening at the local level, and that’s my fault. What I have now doesn’t really work for the local community and I’ve got to figure out what I can do to make it better.”

Roope is exploring building underground parking, with a goal of providing one parking space for each apartment. Still, he doesn’t know if he can swing it financially.

He also recognizes that the project is too far along to change the size of the building and reduce the number of units. Major modifications to the project could place the financing at risk, which is the reason Roope repeatedly stated during the Marin City meeting that he doesn’t think he can make the community happy.

“There’s also this substantial silent majority of people that…need this housing,” Roope told the Pacific Sun. “On the one hand, I totally get all the concerns in the community, and I’m going to try my very best. On the other hand, I consider one of my jobs to find the people you’re not hearing from and get them housing. That’s how I view my role in solving the housing crisis.”

In the meantime, community members aren’t holding their collective breath for an easy solution. This week, they filed paperwork to prevent the Marin Housing Authority from providing 25 project-based Section 8 vouchers to 825 Drake Ave.

Each voucher is like a bar of gold to the developer because the government guarantees market rate rent for the apartment. The 25 vouchers cover more than one-third of the units in the building, helping the development pencil out financially. 

If the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approves the vouchers, it equates to $463,728 in annual rental income for the development. 

“That revenue stream helps the financing of the project for sure,” Roope said.

Marin City resident Marilyn Mackel, a retired attorney and Los Angeles County court commissioner, feels confident that HUD won’t release the vouchers for a variety of reasons, including “no sunshine for seniors.” The new five-story building perched on the hillside property will cast a literal shadow over the existing two-story, low-income senior housing complex just 60 feet away.

The development at 825 Drake Ave. will negatively impact the character of the community in other ways, too, which could influence HUD’s decision. The rents, though considered affordable based on the area median income (AMI) for Marin County, are out of reach for most Marin City residents.

The county AMI for an individual is $116,000. However, Marin City’s AMI is just 28% of the county’s figure—$32,847 for an individual—based on the most recent Census Bureau data.

The influx of people with higher incomes could lead to higher rents throughout Marin City, which is home to the largest Black community in the county. This might price some residents out of their homes, leading to gentrification.

Roope says he is looking at the rent structure and hopes to make some adjustments.

However, Marin City has more affordable housing than any other area of the county, which is another fly in the ointment. Last month, state officials rejected the county’s mandated plan for new housing, noting the need for “more housing choices and affordability across greater geographies throughout the county,” to affirmatively further fair housing opportunities.

In other words, stop placing most of the county’s affordable housing in Marin City.

Legitimate questions arise about the county’s motivations and actions with regard to the Drake Avenue development, especially when considering the high concentration of affordable housing that already exists in Marin City.

The county maintains that it was forced to approve the project due to Senate Bill 35, a 2018 state law restricting local governments from rejecting multi-family residential developments that satisfy specific criteria. Unincorporated Marin County is subject to SB 35 because it has not built enough new housing to meet the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), which aims to resolve the housing shortage. 

But SB 35 author, Sen. Scott Wiener, opines that “when local communities refuse to create enough housing—instead punting housing creation to other communities—then the State needs to ensure that all communities are equitably contributing to regional housing needs. Local control must be about how a community meets its housing goals, not whether it meets those goals.”

Clearly, Marin City has not been “punting housing creation,” which could have given the county a reason to reject the development.

Even assuming that the county had to approve 825 Drake Ave., it had no obligation to facilitate the project financing. Yet, the county provided a greenlight for the issuance of $40 million in tax-exempt bonds and then bestowed the gift of 25 housing vouchers.

The development kills two birds with one stone for the county. First, the 74-units help the county reach its RHNA goal for housing.

It also provides a solution to “overhousing” at Golden Gate Village, a public housing project in Marin City that is operated by the Marin Housing Authority. Overhousing refers to residents who live in units larger than necessary, which is a violation of HUD regulations.

HUD has been exerting pressure on the local housing authority to find new homes for the residents of about 35 overhoused units at Golden Gate Village. It’s quite convenient that the housing authority allocated 25 housing vouchers to the Drake Avenue project–a huge step in remedying the thorny overhousing issue.

Mackel, the retired court commissioner, believes the county’s actions, along with other issues, provide a strong legal basis for a temporary injunction—effectively stopping the developer from breaking ground until a judge rules on claims brought forth in a lawsuit.

As a last resort, the community is prepared to participate in peaceful civil disobedience to prevent the construction of the building. They hope they don’t have to.

“We’d rather the developer cut his losses and walk,” Mackel said.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thankfully you continue to cover this issue!!!
    Pacific Sun, Nikki, please keep up the great work.
    And thanks to the folks who are paying attention!!!!

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  2. Nikki, thank you for speaking the truth about 825 Drake development.
    Sadly the MHA, HUD and the supervisors have not listened to the residents for many years. Keep writing!

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  3. Incredible article that weaves together many complex threads into a totally coherent story. The Drake SB 35 project is an object lesson in what happens when a community is trapped in a web of impactful and intractable laws that cannot appealed. The community spirit of Marin City is heartening. Thank you, Nikki, for shining a light.

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  4. I laugh at the term overhousing when talking about poor people getting shunted out of their homes, but it’s fine for the wealthy to build mansions for their two person household.

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  5. This is first I’ve learned of this dreadful looking complex. Not mentioned in the article is the awful design pictured in the rendering. It is insulting to the neighborhood to say the least. Something like this should never be approved.
    Our community deserves better archtecture.

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  6. So many of us in California are having our voices silenced by big money. Newsom has to support his donors or his money will dry up.
    If you’d like to join the movement to get our voices back please visit OurNeighborhoodVoices.com

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  7. For those who oppose this project based on its number of parking spaces, I hope you recognize that additional parking will make these new apartments even less affordable. The average cost of one underground parking space is $80,000.

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