.Upfront: Affordable housing oasis in West Marin?

Opportunity exists to transform U.S. Coast Guard property in Point Reyes Station

by Peter Seidman

The second shot at a bill that would get the federal government to help Marin provide affordable housing in West Marin is sitting in Congress. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the bill has little chance of passing. But affordable housing proponents are firm in their efforts to make a project happen.

Although the odds seem stacked against them, affordable housing advocates, the county Board of Supervisors and Congressman Jared Huffman remain committed to giving it the old college try.

At stake is a surplus United States Coast Guard property in Point Reyes Station. The Coast Guard built housing there for people who worked at a nearby communications center, a complex of 10 two-story townhouses to house 36 men and their families. Another building, a two-story dormitory-type structure was built to house 42 single men on the 37-acre site. The Coast Guard spent $1.1 million to build the complex in 1972. As many as 185 people lived there at one time, which increased the population of Point Reyes by a sizeable percentage.

The Coast Guard eventually changed its housing policies and plans for housing, which affected the Point Reyes complex. Rather than maintain the complex at Point Reyes, the Coast Guard distributed housing vouchers for the employees at the communications center, allowing them to live in nearby towns. That meant that the Point Reyes property was no longer needed. It went on the surplus list and is slated to be sold within the year, most probably.

The Coast Guard intends to sell the property to the highest bidder in its 2016 fiscal year, which starts in October of 2015.

A group of affordable housing proponents, elected officials and members of the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin (CLAM), recognized that the surplus Coast Guard property would be an ideal site for affordable housing, which is badly needed in West Marin. But competing on the open market in an open bidding battle to submit the highest offer was, and is, a daunting proposition.

Congressman Huffman, who represents Marin, Introduced a bill in the House of Representatives in November of 2014 to allow the county and CLAM to buy and manage the property in a fair sale process but without the pressure of an open bidding war. The idea was to compile a fair-value price and then arrange for a sale based on it.

Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who represents West Marin, stepped up and asked his colleagues on the board to support the effort. In a November 25 letter, Kinsey asked them for a resolution of support for Huffman’s bill, the Point Reyes Coast Guard Housing Conveyance Act.

“An extraordinary, unique opportunity to create affordable housing in West Marin is before us,” Kinsey wrote. “The U.S. Coast guard is about to sell its 30-acre property in Point Reyes Station, which includes 36 housing units and other community facilities. Normally this sale would go to the highest bidder, through an auction by the U.S. General Services Administration.

“As we know well, the current market forces and the coastal permit process combine to make constructing new affordable housing in West Marin almost impossible.

“Recognizing that an opportunity like this one may never happen again in West Marin, I have been working closely with County staff and Congressman Huffman to pursue this unique property for the benefit of Marin residents. Congressman Huffman has taken a leadership position in drafting [the legislation], which would require that the Coast Guard convey the property to the county of Marin, based on a value to be determined by a real estate appraiser to be selected by the County, and with the consideration of equity and fairness, reflecting the depth of need for affordable housing in West Marin.

“Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have expressed strong interest in sponsoring similar legislation during the coming ‘lame duck’ legislative session.

“The Community Land Trust of Marin is an active partner in the pursuit of this property, and, should it go forward, would be a logical partner to the county in supporting the acquisition of the property, its conversion from military use, as well as the future management of affordable housing on the property. An extraordinary level of support has been expressed by the community for the project …

“Please join me in sending a resounding message of support to our congressional representatives for the proposed bill, as well as our great appreciation for their efforts to enable this critically important acquisition via direct negotiation, versus a GSA auction. The success of this project would be a legacy for generations to come.”

The heartfelt nature of the proposal is especially understandable considering the number of affordable units that could become available at the Coast Guard site. And they could become available without traveling the strict and often difficult-to-navigate road through planning and environmental rules and regulations. That’s because housing already is a historical use on the property and making it affordable to civilians would not change that use as it relates to planning and environmental regulations.

The total number of housing units that could be added on the site might not seem huge, but given the total number of residents in Point Reyes, the significance of the property comes into focus. Using the property for affordable housing could create units for the equivalent of about 10 percent of the town’s population of about 870 residents.

Despite the support of Kinsey and his fellow supervisors, who unanimously supported the Kinsey resolution, the bill Huffman introduced in the House to get the government to sell the property without an auction, H.R.5684, died a fairly quick death in the 113th Congress last year.

But Huffman is taking another grab at the brass ring this congressional session. He reintroduced the idea of getting the feds to convey the Coast Guard property to the county without going to an auction. The reintroduction is contained in H.R.1402 and remains alive. It’s currently in committee.

In a statement made when Huffman introduced his first version of the legislation in November, he said, “The dearth of affordable housing in West Marin has pushed more and more working-class families out of the region, negatively impacting families and making it hard for local businesses and agricultural producers to find long-term staff. We have a rare opportunity to provide affordable housing to the Point Reyes community without impacting the existing landscape. I’m glad that this effort has received such strong support from the local community, and my bill would ensure that we are able to capitalize on this opportunity.

“The potential acquisition of the Coast Guard housing facility presents a chance to significantly improve affordable housing in West Marin.”

Kim Thompson, executive director of the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin, said, “This 30-acre site, in walking distance of downtown Point Reyes Station, could provide much needed affordable homes at a time when many local families are being displaced due to land speculation and the conversion of rental homes into vacation rentals.” We strongly support Congressman Huffman’s efforts to put this site into the community’s hands, and hope that Senators Feinstein and Boxer will take up this effort in the Senate.”

CLAM and fellow supporters of affordable housing in West Marin note that the situation along the coast is dire for many lower-income people. They must compete for housing in an area where housing units are eliminated from the market because wealthier people use properties for second homes.

According to CLAM, “Escalation of home and land prices in the Point Reyes National Seashore area have dramatically reduced the rental market, escalated rental prices, and made affordable home ownership for working families impossible. There is widespread recognition that the communities surrounding Tomales Bay are in danger of being hollowed out by market forces that promote displacement of local residents and those who work locally. Community ownership of [the Coast Guard site] would provide affordable homes that are the anchor of community health.”

CLAM also points out that “the creation of affordable homes and community assets at the site will not involve any additional building footprint; rather, it will involve the wise re-use and ongoing stewardship of existing buildings.”

In addition to the housing units that could be offered to lower income residents on the site, the property could add what CLAM calls valuable “community space.” CLAM notes that dozens of community groups, schools and organizations are supporting the effort to turn the property into an affordable housing oasis.

In what looks like a repeat of the legislation’s path last year, the newer version that Huffman introduced in this Congress rests in committee. Govtrak.us gives the legislation a dismal 1 percent chance of becoming law.

But that dismal prognostication isn’t stopping CLAM and other supporters in their efforts to convert the Coast Guard property to affordable housing. The feds are still scheduled to put the property up for auction starting sometime in October. There’s still time to convince and persuade, say supporters of the affordable housing project.

Contact the writer at [email protected]

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