Editorial: Housing quotas reignite debate over building sites

Editorial Staff

JUST A FEW years ago, supervisors tried to douse a few political firestorms by erasing possible affordable housing sites from the update of the countywide plan.

It worked, for a couple of years — if you consider ignoring a pressing issue a good approach.

The county now faces a state requirement to designate building sites for the construction of 320 affordable homes, its share of such housing needed in the Bay Area.

The quota is developed by the Bay Area Association of Governments, a number that often is criticized by local officials as being unfair and unrealistic. Perhaps, but it also is likely that without such a requirement, and the political pressure it places on local government, little would be done to build workforce housing in our county.

Finding the right locations is often the most difficult part of the process. Of course, finding the money to build is no picnic either.

But doing nothing ignores the reality that a large portion of Marin’s workforce commutes to jobs here from homes outside the county, mainly because Marin’s housing prices are so high, even after prices have taken a beating the past few years.

According to the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California, almost two-thirds of Marin workers do not earn enough to rent a market-rate apartment in Marin.

For a county loudly striving to be environmentally sustainable, that is a formula for more commuters driving longer distances — burning more fossil fuel, creating more pollution and putting further strain on our social fabric — to fill jobs in Marin.

Marin relies on other counties to supply more than a third of its workforce, according to the association. That needs to change.

The county has come up with a list of 30 possible sites, ranging from the Marinwood Plaza shopping center along Highway 101 to the Grandi Building in Point Reyes Station. Other sites include the old McPhail School campus in Santa Venetia, a portion of the Golden Gate Baptist Seminary in Strawberry and the Olema Campground.

One hundred low-cost units are designated for the St. Vincent’s and Silveira ranch properties just north of San Rafael.

The county’s new regional quota may reopen some debates. For example, one site at Tamalpais Junction is on the county’s draft list of possible sites, even though Southern Marin Supervisor Charles McGlashan said during the 2007 hearings that he would not support development there because of traffic congestion.

The county’s problem is the state’s housing rules demand more than a list of pie-in-the-sky sites. The state wants to see zoning in place that would lay the bureaucratic foundation for affordable housing.

In some cases, that might mean multi-unit and multi-story developments.

The county is going to have to offer more than a hope and a promise. That’s the way it should be.

Marin has made some impressive strides in recent years toward building more workforce housing.

The number of lower-cost housing units likely will never catch up with the need, but each additional unit helps take a commuter off the road and helps reduce Marin’s carbon footprint.

The county’s housing plans need to be clear about the development potential of the designated locations. If that takes rezoning and full-blown public hearings, that needs to starts now.

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