Date: 10.05.2007
Publication: SF Business Times
Author: Lizette Wilson

Marin County warms – slightly – to affordable housing with political changes, truce between advocates and activists.

There is a lot of talk about affordable housing in Marin County this year. How much action remains to be seen.

But with a slightly more receptive political landscape, an affordable housing push by a major nonprofit and the prospect of a truce between housing activists and environmentalists, hopes are high that words will be backed by deeds.

One of the nation’s wealthiest enclaves, Marin is the land of bubbling hot tubs and even hotter home prices. The median price hovers around $1 million, due to both general market appreciation and early environmental protection efforts that constrain supply. Some 80 percent of the county is dedicated green space, with most of the balance already built or largely unbuildable.

Housing proposals for what’s left tend to attract heated local opposition by residents who claim that virtually any more development in Marin will cause too much traffic and damage the environment.

“In terms of difficulty, this entitlement has been the most difficult and the most costly we’ve done,” said Bruce Dorfman, who spent more than six years getting a $125 million, 81-unit project approved. Eight-year-old Mill Valley developer Thompson-Dorfman Partners has developed more than $1.7 billion in projects throughout California. “We expected it to be a difficult entitlement process. We weren’t surprised about that. It eventually wears people down and the opponents know that.” Thompson-Dorfman Partners went through more than 300 community meetings before the City of San Rafael approved its Loch Lomond project earlier this month.

With the intention of aiding such developers to get through what it calls a “daunting gantlet of regulations and reactions,” the Marin Community Foundation – the county’s largest charitable foundation – launched its Marin Community Housing Action initiative earlier this year.

After awarding more than $35 million in grants to affordable housing developments during the past two decades, foundation directors reached a critical moment when they were searching for additional projects to fund in the county, but couldn’t find any.

“We wanted to do more projects like the Fireside, but there weren’t any,” said MCF President and CEO Tom Peters, referring to the 50-unit project in Tam Junction now under construction. The foundation awarded $1.6 million in grants and $1.1 million in low interest loans to the development, which broke ground last fall and will house seniors and families when it opens next spring.

The housing initiative will bring together developers and housing advocates, offering advice as well as the foundations money. It will also have lawyers at the ready if officialdom fails to cooperate: With more than $1 billion in assets, MCF is the largest funder of Marin Legal Aid, an association that allows Peters to wield a stick in addition to a carrot.

“We’ll be working with all the various actors, including the supervisors, and we’re looking to do this in a constructive way, with that (being litigious) as a last resort,” said Peters. “Nevertheless, we’re determined. It’s an issue which is poignant and important on every level – personal, cultural and economic to the future of Marin.”

The political landscape has also shifted. Architect Stephen Thompson was reappointed recently to the county Planning Commission, which also added housing advocate Katie Crecelius as a member.

And just last week, the county’s Board of Supervisors tentatively rejected the decision of a previous planning commission that development at the massive St Vincent’s/Silveira property be limited to 221 homes. By a 3-2 margin at a meeting attended by more that 500 people, supervisors said they will allow a senior housing complex of 350 units or more on the 1,230-acre tract, in addition to the homes.

Not all the news has been good for housing advocates. At the same time as the county opened the door to more housing at St Vincents/Silveria, it bowed to homeowner objections and scaled down affordable housing projects proposed for two other locations.

That follows cuts in response to other projects. As a result, an ambitious county plan for 1,692 affordable housing units has been slashed to 628.

Meanwhile, there is some movement shifting housing and environmental advocates from their traditional attack mode to a new collaborative one.

Leaders from the count’s half dozen or so highly influential environmental groups and affordable housing advocates have been meeting since 2005 as the Marin Environmental Housing Collaborative.

The ad-hoc group has been a clearing house to resolve “trust issues” between the two groups and develop a shared agenda to promote sustainable, transportation-oriented development.

“It comes down to density and making the best use of the land we have,” said member Dave Coury who is also chairman of the Housing Leadership Alliance for Marin.

Daisy Pistey-Lyhne a group member who represents the Greenbelt Alliance for Sonoma and Marin said the MEHC is “now at the point for action.”

MEHC and other housing advocates will be put to the test in coming months as the county updates its general plan.

Said Pistey-Lyhne: “There’s more resources happening now, but there’s no community buy-in yet. You’ve got to get a progressive policy in place.”