A Southern California real estate developer with approval to build a controversial, five-story apartment complex in Marin City heard strong condemnations of the project at a county hearing last week.
“It was a shit show,” developer Alexis Gevorgian, of AMG & Associates in Encino, told the Pacific Sun in an interview.
Indeed, it was. The three-and-a-half hour hearing marked the first opportunity for Marin City residents to publicly share their perspectives with the county board of supervisors about the 74-unit affordable housing development to be built on one acre.
Speaker after speaker cited the dangers of adding another large complex to an already densely populated area. Not only is 825 Drake Ave., the location of the development, in a state-designated high fire hazard zone, but the area is also prone to flooding, and is served by only one road in and out.
Even the five supervisors were critical of the project, which the county approved in November 2020. Supervisor Mary Sackett said that 24 parking spots for 74 units is “ridiculous.” Each supervisor expressed a variety of concerns, with most mentioning the developer’s failure to engage with the community.
No one except Gevorgian, the developer, espoused anything positive about the project. Of course, Gevorgian should be thrilled. The for-profit developer took advantage of state laws that provide incentives for building affordable housing. The project benefited from a streamlined approval process, and it received an 80% density bonus, which added 33 units to the 41 units allowed under the county code.
The supervisors repeatedly stated their hands were tied—no local decisions could be made about the project—due to Senate Bill 35, a 2018 state law which restricts 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.
Marin City residents and their supporters had hoped last week’s hearing, held to determine whether to approve the issuance of $40 million in tax exempt bonds for the project, would give the supervisors the control they needed to derail the developer.
“Marin County Board of Supervisors, you all have the power,” Marin City resident Felecia Gaston said. “You can vote no.”
During deliberations, Supervisors Dennis Rodoni, Katie Rice and Sackett basically parroted the advice given at the hearing by Marin County counsel Brian Washington. Although Washington acknowledged the board had discretion not to approve the issuance of the bond, he seemed to discourage a “no” vote.
“You know that decision would be judged on an abusive discretion standard,” Washington said. “You know the case law demonstrates that you have to have a bona fide, legitimate rationale for not doing an approval in a case like this. And you know, SB 35 and some other previous actions the board has taken do narrow the range of discretion in this instance.”
The board dismissed the residents’ impassioned pleas, voting 3-2 to approve the bond issuance from the California Municipal Finance Authority, a state-wide joint powers authority, of which the county is a member. Although Marin County is not issuing the tax-exempt bonds, local elected representatives from the area must provide approval, according to the Internal Revenue Service regulations.
Supervisors Moulton-Peters and Eric Lucan dissented, but for different reasons. Frustration with SB 35 propelled Moulton-Peters into making a fiery statement about voting “nay.”
“This is Marin City,” Moulton-Peters said. “They have the most multi-family housing in any area in the county. This was not where we were supposed to make up our RHNA numbers. It was to happen in other parts of Marin County that have not produced the housing they should have. And I’m angry about this, and the community is angry about this, and they have told us this today.”
Another bone of contention was that the developer couldn’t answer some questions because he didn’t have a current financial statement. Lucan expressed concern that the available financial information on the project is almost nine months old.
“I wanted to see the financials, updated and accurate, to see whether the county, a public entity, should authorize the issuance of tax-exempt bonds that will benefit a for-profit corporation,” Lucan said in an interview.
For Marin City, which by far has the largest Black population in the county, allowing the behemoth development to move ahead is another step towards gentrifying the community. While the apartments are considered affordable housing based on Marin County’s area median income (AMI), most Marin City residents can’t afford to live there.
In the county, the 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.
Housing is considered affordable when a person pays no more than 30% of their gross income on the rent or mortgage, including utilities, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The monthly rent at the Drake Avenue development will start at $999 for a studio, which exceeds 30% of the Marin City AMI. This 561 square foot apartment is not “affordable” for the average Marin City resident.
The director of the Marin Housing Authority, Kimberly Carroll, said during the hearing that 25 project-based Section 8 housing vouchers were allocated to the development and preference could be given to Marin City residents. A person with a Section 8 voucher pays only 30% of their income for the apartment and utilities.
Still, there is a waiting list for vouchers, and only families, seniors or disabled individuals with extremely low or very low incomes qualify. Those qualifications exclude many working-class people unable to afford the rent at 825 Drake Ave.
The typically soft-spoken reverend of Marin City’s First Missionary Baptist Church, Pastor Rondall Leggett, expressed his contempt for the project’s approval during the hearing.
“Truth be told, it’s a rape job,” Leggett said. “And I call it a rape job because any time you force something on somebody without their permission, that’s rape.”
But the harshest words came a day later from Gevorgian. The real estate developer, in an interview with the Pacific Sun, said that he wasn’t happy with the 30 or so Marin City residents who spoke out against the project.
“They’re communists, right?” Gevorgian said. “They just want free handouts. You have 30 people who want to change [the project] and screw it up for 150 to 200 people who will have a life-altering experience, wherein they are leaving overcrowded housing in areas far inferior to this area and [will] be very appreciative.”
“Those 30 people, they don’t care. It’s all about them. Give me more. Give me more vouchers. Lower our rent. They bring up George Floyd and Jim Crow. I’m just a builder coming into a hornet’s nest. All I want to do is build. You don’t like it, don’t live there,” Gevorgian continued.
With SB 35 and the bond funding lined up, it seems like the large development that Marin City residents don’t want is a fait accompli. State Assemblymember Damon Connolly and Sen. Mike McGuire are making a last ditch effort to bring the developer and the community together. This week, the two state representatives will be meeting with the developer to “insist they work with the community in a sincere and meaningful way,” McGuire said in a statement.
“Resident concerns need to be addressed,” Connolly told the Pacific Sun. “If the developer doesn’t step up, that would be a mistake on his part.”
So far, AMG & Associates, the developer, hasn’t made much effort to engage with the community, except for an email that was sent to eight organizations last year. While the company said they offered to meet with the groups, no meetings took place because of a lack of response.
The Pacific Sun reviewed the list of organizations, which an AMG & Associates representative said was provided by the county. Only two were based in Marin City, with one of those serving the entire county area.
Paul Austin, who runs a Marin City nonprofit for children, said that the way the developer has treated the community has been “hurtful.”
“They could have Googled ‘Marin City’ and gotten a better list of community organizations,” Austin said.
The chances of making changes to the Drake Avenue project are slim, since the developer has until May 30 to meet a state deadline requiring that he obtain building permits and issue a “notice to proceed” to the contractor.
In addition, Gevorgian, the developer, indicated to the Pacific Sun that he doesn’t believe the issues raised by the community are legitimate. With regard to flooding, he said, “take another road,” apparently unaware that Marin City has just one ingress and egress.
The fire hazard zone designation and the population density in the small area also caused little concern to Gevorgian. He said that millions of other California homes are similarly situated.
“We are zoned and have the right to build,” Gevorgian concluded.
Residents vow to continue opposing the development. A petition against the project started by a community group, Save Our City, has gathered more than 1,370 signatures.
“We’ll protest arm in arm and block the construction,” said Terrie Green, executive director of Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice, a nonprofit. “We have been fighting with the county about infrastructure issues, and this project is only going to make it worse. All we’re asking is they cut the building height in half, cut the number of units in half and build some parking. Let’s move on.”