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Marin Independent Journal

In Marin, affordable housing opposition stronger than ever despite Marin Community Foundation efforts

Marin_Independent_Journal_mastBy Richard Halstead

A prominent voice missing from the recent debate over Plan Bay Area was the Marin Community Foundation, which in 2007 announced that it was mounting a major effort to change Marin’s “Not In My Back Yard” mindset.

In 2007, the foundation invited nonprofit advocates and developers of affordable housing to submit grant proposals for winning hearts and minds. And it proceeded to spend an estimated $400,000 on the initiative, over the next several years.

This year, however, the foundation was silent over months of heated debate around Plan Bay Area, a regional plan that seeks to promote the development of new, affordable housing along transportation corridors and near mass transit to reduce greenhouse gas production.

Given the furor that erupted around Plan Bay Area — much of it focused on the prospect for more higher density, affordable housing in Marin — was the foundation’s effort a flop?

Thomas Peters, the Marin Community Foundation’s president, said, “I’m very happy with the work that we did. It was intended to be a couple-year initiative and that’s what we did. We never labeled it as a kind of anti-NIMBY campaign. We wanted to be sure that at least the facts were out there about affordable housing being a contributing factor to a healthy community, and not as some folks claim, a detriment.”

Susan Kirsch, one of the founders of Citizen Marin, a coalition of neighborhood associations formed to oppose Plan Bay Area, said, “Marin Community Foundation is not the only community foundation that has taken this strong stance, to support building no matter what.”

Much of the money spent went to the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, an affordable housing advocacy group, and Greenbelt Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, to produce two reports.

Published in 2011, the first report, titled “Miles from Home,” detailed the role that affordable housing can play in taking cars off the road and protecting against climate change. It noted that 60 percent of Marin’s workforce commutes from outside county lines, where housing is cheaper.

The second report, published the same year, titled “Driving Home Economic Recovery,” explained how additional workforce housing would create jobs and boost spending in Marin.

The Non-Profit Housing Association and Greenbelt Alliance also passed along $75,000 of foundation grant money to Stand Up for Neighborly Novato, a Novato-based affordable housing advocacy group formed in 2011.

Dianne Spaulding, executive director of the Non-Profit Housing Association, said, “I think part of why Marin has become a hot spot of concern for those opposed to affordable housing is because the initiative did what it was supposed to do. I think we have moved the needle on affordable housing in Marin; but it is a needle that moves slowly.”

In addition to working with Greenbelt Alliance on the reports, Spaulding said her association scrutinized the housing elements of all 11 of Marin’s municipalities. State law requires counties and municipalities to create housing elements in their general plans that foster the creation of a specified amount of affordable housing by identifying appropriate building sites and removing red tape that might block construction. The association came up with 33 sites suitable for the creation of affordable housing in Marin, ranked according to feasibility.

Spaulding said her association also developed a leadership program for current Marin residents of affordable housing to teach the residents how to tell their stories and took local elected representatives on tours of local affordable housing projects.

And Spaulding said her association has taken the initial steps to form a Marin Affordable Housing Coalition that would consist of such organizations as the Marin Organizing Committee, Stand Up for Neighborly Novato, Sustainable Novato, Sustainable Marin, Marin Grassroots, Marin Workforce Housing Trust and the League of Women Voters.

Jeremy Madsen, executive director of Greenbelt Alliance, said, “The biggest role that we played was to make it clear that affordable housing is an environmental issue. The more that we are able to accommodate homes for people who are part of our workforce in the cities and towns of Marin the less pressure we’re putting on the natural environment, the open spaces of our region. This effort was a good start in a long-term process.”

Annan Paterson, one of the founders of Stand Up For Neighborly Novato, said Stand Up has won the endorsement of 1,200 local residents and trained more than 50 people who live in or need affordable housing in Novato to be spokesmen.

“Our ability to do that has really helped to inform the debate,” Paterson said. She said some members of the organization receive a stipend, but most are volunteers.

Lynn Wasley, another of Stand Up for Neighborly Novato’s co-founders, said despite the foundation’s efforts, the intense opposition to affordable housing that she once associated mainly with Novato seems to have spread throughout Marin.

Wasley said the Marin Community Foundation’s absence from the Plan Bay Area debate gives at least the appearance that the foundation may have retreated some on the affordable housing issue.

“It’s hard not to assume that the attacks on the Marin Community Foundation for what and who they were supporting, including Stand Up for Neighborly Novato, didn’t impact them,” Wasley said.

Peters, however, said the main reason the foundation chose not to participate in the Plan Bay Area debate was that it was too abstract.

“An awful lot of the debate is about pure hypotheticals,” Peters said. “It has gone so far off the rails of what is actually going to be built that it is not an effective use of the foundation’s focus or frankly my time.”

Peters said, rather than engage in idle speculation, “We stay working with the people who want to have this happen: an owner who has a parcel that is appropriate to develop, a nonprofit housing developer, and somebody who has the consummate skill to put together a financing package for building.”

Over the past 10 years, the foundation has contributed to the creation of more than 400 units of affordable housing in Marin through grants and loans.

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at rhalstead@marinij.com

This article appeared in the Marin Independent Journal.


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