San Francisco Chronicle
May 15, 2022
J.K. Dineen

The site of Marin County’s largest affordable housing development in a half century is sandwiched between $4 million homes and a maximum-security prison that houses some 2,600 prisoners.

On a former San Quentin gun range overlooking the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, a team of nonprofits is planning to build 250 apartments to house a combination of low-income families and moderate-income teachers and school staff.

The project is on state-owned land and not subject to the approvals of local Marin County officials, who are notorious for delaying and killing proposed housing.

It comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom is pumping an unprecedented amount of money into affordable housing as the state enjoys a record $97.5 billion surplus — and as it scours excess government-owned properties for housing sites.

While 17 such properties are in the planning stages of development statewide, perhaps none are as spectacular as the 8-acre hillside property on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Larkspur, a city where homes average $2.3 million.

“We certainly appreciate the money the state is bringing to the table but land is always the first thing that you need,” said Andrea Osgood, senior vice president of development for Eden Housing, one of the developers on the project along with Education Housing Partners. “Free land makes a lot of things possible.”

State assembly-member Mark Levine called it “a gift to the community.”

“This is the most consequential affordable housing opportunity for Marin County in generations,” he said at a recent community meeting. “It’s important we get it right.”

The project is undergoing environmental review and the developers hope to open by 2025.

A total of 135 units of the 250 units would be available to low to moderate income educators at rents that would be roughly 30% below market rate, about $2,100 in the current market. The remaining 115 units would be available to extremely low to low income households, currently between about $43,000 and $73,000. Qualified residents would be selected by lottery.

Education Housing Partners is a spinoff of Thompson Dorfman, a Marin-based developer that has produced about 17,000 units.

Bruce Dorfman his partners started the educator housing group in 2004 in order to stem the exodus of teachers who were getting priced out of communities in Silicon Valley. At the time, the state had a budget surplus and was giving local districts financial incentives to reduce class size.

Hundreds of teachers were recruited to the districts, including many from Midwest. Many found they could only afford to live in the Bay Area if they doubled up in small apartments or rented converted garages. Many of these teachers commuted long distances and eventually quit. Santa Clara and San Mateo counties saw a 300% increase in teacher attrition rate.

“They were leaving the profession all together,” said Dorfman. “All due to the cost of housing.”

Today, Marin County’s market is even more overheated.

A survey found that 78% of Marin public school employees commuted in from outside the county and 58% said the inability to find affordable housing would force them to likely leave the district in three to five years, according to according to Superintendent Mary Jane Burke.

“The lack of affordable housing and the high cost of living in Marin County is the No 1 issue that is effecting our public school’s ability to hire and retain educators,” said Burke at a recent community meeting.

At the start of the year the district has 317 vacancies, Since then that number has dropped to about 80 as the district has aggressively sought to fill positions.

Deputy Superintendent Ken Lippi said the concern is that many school workers won’t be back in the fall. He said teachers commute from as far away as Fairfield in Solano County.

“It’s a situation where many people are have such long commutes that it’s not sustainable,” he said.

Robin Pendoley, who works on education equity issues for the Marin Promises Partnership, said the dearth of affordable places to live has exacerbated the difficulty of creating a diverse workforce. Students of color make up 43% of the total Marin student body but only 11% of teachers are educators of color. Creating affordable housing “is an important component of competing for and retaining educators of color,” he said.

While Dorfman’s group has been successful in building teacher housing in the South Bay, he said there are challenges. Most teacher housing is proposed for sites owned by the school districts and controlled by elected school board members reluctant to part ways with land that could be needed for future schools. Often those school board members are also neighbors of sites and vote against proposals that raise concerns about traffic, parking, or density.

At the San Quentin site, the project doesn’t need the support of the Board of Supervisors or the Larkspur City Council.

That doesn’t sit well with Drake’s Cove resident David Herr who said that the process has completely ignored the concerns of its neighbors. He said that he supports a housing development on the site, but that 250 units is out of character with the neighborhood. He that the density of the project is being driven by the response to the “request for proposal,” or RFP, put forward by Eden and Education Housing Partnership, rather than a public discussion about what can be accommodated there.

“There was no open and transparent process to determine what makes sense there in terms of zoning,” he said. “The ‘mandate’ from the state was created by the developer’s winning RFP proposal — it’s zoning by RFP.”

He said the neighbors at Drakes Cove support a development there but that it should be closer to 130 units rather than 250. He supports scaled back 130-unit variation of a “garden plan” alternative which called for 178 units.

“That is way too many units for that location,” he said. “The height and bulk of the Podium structure vastly exceeds anything in the area.”

Dorfman, a Mill Valley resident who is currently facing resistance to a project he is building in Belvedere, one of California’s wealthiest towns, said the project has been less controversial than most Marin projects. He said that his group has agreed to put a traffic signal at the intersection, which is within walking distance of the Marin Country Mart, the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, and the SMART train. It is also holding public meetings during the review process.

“The state has been very supportive. Marin as a whole has been supportive,” he said. “The neighbors? It’s Marin County. It’s not much different than Belvedere.”

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