Can we afford not to?

Peter Seidman

A peek beneath the roof of the Novato affordable housing debate

The debate over affordable housing in Novato focuses on many of the same issues in similar debates elsewhere in the county. What’s different this time in Novato is the temperature of the discussion—it’s been white hot.

When the city’s Planning Commission started wrestling with how Novato should meet state requirements for affordable housing, people packed meetings. Residents opposed to creating what they see as high-density affordable housing developments used terms such as “roaches’ nest.” Others suggested that affordable housing might be acceptable, as long as it’s on the east side of Highway 101, away from their neighborhoods. And others contended that medium-density affordable housing developments, about 30 units for example, by definition incubated crime. A suspicion of “the other” bubbled just beneath the surface.

The controversy erupted when the city created a list of possible sites for affordable housing to meet state-mandated housing requirements as delineated by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).

ABAG’s method of determining the number of units a city must create to meet the state mandate remains a source of fierce debate, as does the core issue of affordable housing and the level of local acceptance, especially when it comes to multi-unit developments.

According to the state mandate, the city must provide 313 units of new housing for families with extremely low- to low-incomes. Currently, ABAG doesn’t accept conversion of existing housing to meet affordable goals.

State Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-6th District, is working on a bill that would soften the requirement and give credit for actions such as rehabbing foreclosed homes and returning them to the market as affordable. But for now, the numbers stand.

According to data compiled in 2009, a family of four with an annual income of $90,500 falls into the low-income category. In other words, it’s relative.

ABAG’s mandate, which irks many, pushes cities with populations the size of Novato to create developments for low-income families with a density of 30 units per acre. That requirement has caused the most pushback among some Novato residents. Some of those opposed to multi-unit developments say they are out of character in their neighborhoods. Others say they serve as an attractant for an unwanted element, “the other.”

To the credit of city leaders, after the initial explosion from opponents, the city manager formed a working group of 21 volunteers to look at possible sites and make recommendations to the City Council about the available options. The city also called for a series of public workshops to discuss issues such as density and crime associated (or not) with affordable housing.

A handful of groups opposed to adding multi-unit developments formed; their focus rested in large part on the concept of such developments. Scattering affordable housing throughout the community would be fine, they said, and suggested second units and the foreclosures returned to market model.

But affordable housing proponents counter that the number of homes possible using those strategies is simply too small. They say even the 313 units proposed for Novato aren’t enough to meet the need.

Recently a new group, Stand Up for Neighborly Novato, arose. “We were literally sitting around a living room talking about the current debate and dialogue,” says co-founder Annan Paterson. “We were really concerned about the divisiveness. We want to be another voice in the debate, a counter to some of the scare tactics and wedge politics that are going on, a voice for housing options for our seniors and disabled and working families in Novato.”

Paterson says the new group supports the effort of the city manager’s working group. “We want decision-makers and our community to let that group do its work, gather data, do the research and come up with a recommendation. We want to bring a tone of respect and inclusion into this dialogue that has gotten so heated.” Paterson says members of her group are fanning out in Novato neighborhoods to disseminate information about who benefits from affordable housing—and to introduce residents to people who live in affordable units.

Marla Fields, another Neighborly Novato co-founder, echoes that sentiment: “Novato’s housing debate should be a fact-based, respectful community dialogue that includes all voices and is focused on making Novato a more neighborly community. Individual proposals to provide housing solutions should be judged on their own merit, recognizing that over a hundred successful affordable neighborhoods of all sizes have already been created throughout Marin.”

That goes for Novato, notes Paterson, who points to the Nova-Ro Senior Housing development, Meadow Park and Next Key. And there are other examples, including HartMarin, whose principal, Rob Hart is a fifth-generation Marinite recognized for his innovative approach to affordable housing. HartMarin built the first low-income affordable housing project in the county without tapping any public subsidies. Novato’s Virginia Grove residential community consists of four 1,134-square-foot single-family homes on a 0.65-acre parcel at 1845 Virginia Avenue.

But it’s the prospect of larger developments that has many opponents galvanized and pointing to examples they say show that medium-density developments harbor crime and criminals. But proponents counter that the idea of a causal relationship between crime and the number of units in an affordable housing development is tenuous at best. And no one is talking about monolithic projects, like those that went up after World War II in inner cities across the country. Virtually everyone, including proponents, agrees they represent a failed model.

The modern affordable housing development in a suburban neighborhood can be designed and built to be indistinguishable from other housing in a community. A city can tackle design issues at the planning level to create an acceptable development that adds to rather than detracts from the character of a neighborhood. And proper management during design, construction, maintenance and resident selection can ensure a successful outcome.

The undertone of “others” flooding to Novato from inner cities to take advantage of affordable housing has raised an unpleasant specter that is the type of reaction the Marin Community Foundation (MCF) had in mind when it included public education about affordable housing as part of its overall $10-million housing initiative, which is funding a partnership between the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and the Greenbelt Alliance.

The partnership highlights the connections among affordable housing, environmental goals and sustainability, according to a new report compiled by the two organizations, titled Miles from Home. “Marin has done an extraordinary job of preserving and protecting its open spaces and natural resources,” says Whitney Merchant, Marin field representative with the Greenbelt Alliance. “That’s one of the main reasons I choose to live in Marin. But the unintended consequence of restricting growth is home prices out of reach of most people.” And that has been a principal cause of the congestion on Highway 101. “People have to commute to their jobs here. We know that because Marin has hardly grown in the last decade and yet traffic has become a nightmare. A large part results from employees commuting into the county, and a great majority of them do that because they cannot afford to live closer to their jobs.”

The Miles from Home report offers a quantitative look at affordable housing and commuting, according to Diane Spaulding, executive director of the housing association. It can serve as a useful fact-based tool for Novato decision-makers.

Statistics, compiled from various sources, paint a picture that leads to a stark conclusion. Federal housing guidelines consider housing affordable if it costs 30 percent or less of household income. Based on housing costs in Marin and current wages, it takes an annual income of $55,716 to afford a one-bedroom rental n Marin. That eliminates the possibility of living locally for many paramedics, teachers, health aides, childcare workers, bank tellers, retail salespeople and others in service industries. According to the report, two-thirds of all employees in Marin earn less than that $55,716 benchmark.

Rental units in Marin are in such short supply for those on the low end of the wage scale that for every nine employees who earn less than $30,000 a year, only one unit is available within their financial capability.

Programs such as the Marin Workforce Housing Trust and the Marin Continuum of Housing Services and others are aimed at promoting affordable housing, but for them to work, communities must embrace the reality of meeting the affordable housing need with places to build.

And unless municipalities within the county meet the need for affordable workforce housing, Marin will continue down an apartheid path that stifles diversity and suppresses vibrancy, with less affluent workers living outside the community and commuting to jobs that serve more affluent residents.

“It’s people that you know that live in affordable housing,” says Robert Hickey, Marin program manager with the housing association and principal author of the Miles from Home report. “Our major revelation is that the vast majority of the people who live in the county’s affordable housing lived in Marin beforehand. They have strong roots in our community.” And as the county’s population continues to age, the number of seniors who will need affordable housing will continue to increase.

A key part of the state’s strategy to provide affordable housing has been the creation of redevelopment agencies across the state. Those agencies received a shock when newly installed Gov. Jerry Brown suggested eliminating the approximately 400 redevelopment agencies, which get their funding from property taxes. In the first year, much of the money that would have gone to the agencies would replenish the state’s general fund. After that, cities, counties, schools and special districts would receive the funds. Local governments and districts could decide where to use the money.

The kicker for affordable housing proponents is that under the current arrangement, 20 percent of redevelopment funds funneled to local agencies must be used for affordable housing—a mandate that would disappear. Housing proponents worry that cities and counties, strapped for cash, would be much less likely to help fund affordable-housing developments.

Putting a spike in redevelopment agencies may be a bad bargain. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 150 units of low-income housing for families creates more than 120 jobs during construction and supports about 30 jobs after residents move in and start spending money in local businesses.

The housing association estimates that 150 new low- to moderate-income households in Novato could have a total purchasing power of $4,329,150 each year. The benefits to traffic reduction and pollution are obvious, but the financial and social benefit to a community is less accepted and understood.

“Redevelopment funds are the single greatest source for affordable housing,” says Hickey. “It’s one of the things redevelopment got right. In the last couple of decades, redevelopment has been responsible for more than half” of the total affordable housing stock created in Marin.

Losing redevelopment agencies and their funding mechanisms across the state, including Marin, “would be totally devastating.”

Novato Housing Element Public Workshops

March 1: Housing Density and Design

March 7: Crime and Housing Management

Workshops are open to all. Check cityofnovato.org for more information.

Contact the writer at peter@pseidman.com

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