Greenbelt Alliance’s new Live Local project is reaching out to environmentalists with a unifying message.
While its residents like to think of themselves as “green,” Marin County actually produces the highest percentage of greenhouse gases from transportation in the entire Bay Area—62 percent. In large part, that’s because some 60,000 people commute to jobs in Marin from homes outside the county. There’s a problem here, and it isn’t getting smaller. In the next 25 years, the Bay Area’s population is expected to increase from 7 million to approximately 9 million, along with a corresponding increase in jobs and traffic.
These are a few of the statistics thrown about at a meeting held September 23 at the Mill Valley Community Center to launch “Live Local,” Greenbelt Alliance’s Grow Smart Bay Area campaign for Marin County. (Greenbelt Alliance has been the Bay Area’s advocate “for open spaces and vibrant places” for 50 years. In the North Bay, it has offices in San Rafael and Santa Rosa.) About 120 people attended, many of them affordable housing advocates who’ve been in the trenches for decades, trying to find ways to make sure the county has homes priced so people who work in Marin can afford to live here instead of spending hours on the freeway in a grueling daily commute.
The meeting occurred at a time of peak controversy over housing requirements mandated by the state and portioned out by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Says Evelyn Stivers, field director for the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California, “There are specific development standards that must be maintained, including quality of building materials, management of tenants and restrictions on the number of people living in each home. There are also specific income requirements based on the median income of the county.”
Many California cities missed the state’s June 2009 deadline to plan where homes can go. And as Marin cities and the county work on updating their overdue housing elements, they need to consider zoning and other strategies to incorporate these housing numbers, which were designed to accommodate expected population increases. Suffice to say, these numbers haven’t gone down well with many local residents.
Protesters found their champion in Dick Spotswood, a columnist for the Marin Independent Journal, who wrote in an August 29 column, “Just when it’s becoming clear that the state’s demand for more ‘affordable housing’ needed to be revamped, the rigid hand of a regional bureaucracy rises again, this time in Novato. That city is facing a laundry list of new developments propelled by mandates from the Association of Bay Area Governments that each municipality build more housing. A systematic examination demonstrates that ABAG’s command-control model has outlived its usefulness.”
Back at the Live Local launch, sipping wine and nibbling on a variety of catered hors d’oeuvres, the audience heard State Senator Mark Leno deliver the keynote address. Also on the program were Greenbelt Alliance Executive Director Jeremy Madsen and Dr. Thomas Peters, President/CEO of the Marin Community Foundation, who explained Live Local as the solution to how Marin County can grow smart. It’s their vision to protect the region’s open spaces and cities while accommodating expected population growth. The evening concluded with a question-and-answer session with a panel of housing and planning experts.
Important to this discussion is an understanding of what’s meant by “affordable housing,” a term that causes many to see visions of crime-ridden residential projects. Spotswood likely had this in mind when he wrote, “Dense concentrations of low-income housing mimic failed housing projects of the 1970s. They create resentment from both residents and neighbors while facilitating crime and gangs.”
The Greenbelt Alliance and the Marin Community Foundation have a different concept. “People need to understand what very low income looks like [in Marin],” said panelist Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney for Public Advocates. “Many people might be surprised that, for a family of four, more than $50,000 annually is still considered very low income.” (In 2009, state income limits considered a family of four in Marin County to be very low income if its annual household income was up to $56,550.)
Also on the panel, Stivers defined such housing as “decent, safe and livable homes, where a resident’s rent or monthly mortgage payments are restricted to no more than 30 percent of their income.”
Reported by Tim Omarzu in Marin Scope Newspapers, Whitney Merchant of the Greenbelt Alliance said at a September meeting of the Marin Board of Supervisors, “Every single one of you has a different image in your head of what it looks like. It depends on the size of the units; it depends on the design.”
As an example of a development that fits well into its community she cited Lone Palm Court, a three-story yellow, red and green building in downtown San Rafael with 72 units per acre, including some for very low-income tenants. According to Merchant, Marin’s mandated housing density of 30 units per acre is the same as Oakland’s and San Francisco’s, but developers in those big cities actually construct buildings with 80 to 90 units per acre. Perhaps that higher density produces the image of low income housing that some of us carry in our heads.
To Greenbelt Alliance, creating affordable housing means veering away from suburban sprawl. It means a variety of home sizes near jobs, shopping and entertainment. It means homes that let police and fire personnel, nurses and teachers live in the communities where they work.
A changed demographic
“Affordable housing in Marin? It’s like the Berkeley cows,” said Peters at the Mill Valley Community Center meeting, reminding the audience of the humorous “Farms? In Berkeley?” ad from a few years back. While noting that controversy over this subject is high, he said the Marin Community Foundation has supported affordable housing for many years as part of its stewardship of Marin’s environment. “This is a critical juncture for the built environment and the natural environment. We have the opportunity to enhance the former and protect the latter.” He also added, “We believe in our hearts that affordable housing helps support diversity, which is absolutely essential to the health, vitality and the future of the economy and our community.”
Senator Leno pointed out that evolving demographics are pushing the need to change our housing patterns. In 1960, 48 percent of California households consisted of couples with at least one child. Today that figure is 33 percent. By 2030, it’s expected that 73 percent of households will be single adults or couples without children. “The 21st century has different demographics,” he said, “and the smart growth concept works for them.”
“Grow Smart Bay Area is about providing options that people increasingly say they want,” says Madsen. As he sees it, “smart growth” means multigenerational housing (in 2035, more than half of Marin’s population will be above age 60) and creating neighborhoods where people can have healthy, family-friendly lifestyles.
The problem is stated on the Live Local website. The landscape in Marin is changing. More and more working families are finding it prohibitively expensive to live and raise families in this beautiful county. …The gap between home prices and local wages is widening but, still, new development focuses on expensive, single-family homes.”
The slowdown in the housing market has given planners and developers a chance to think about what coming development should be. “We have an opportunity to decide what we want our community to look like in the future, to do some longer-term planning, and to step back and see what the community of the 21st century should look like,” says Madsen.
One of the qualities that sets Marin apart from other areas is its abundance of undeveloped open space. A big facet of the smart growth concept is that limiting suburban sprawl protects these green spaces.
The Marin Scope article quoted Supervisor Steve Kinsey saying that, although people were “choking” over the 30-units-per-acre density, a 150-unit development would take up only five acres. “This isn’t something that has to be insidious and creep into every suburban arroyo,” Kinsey said. “Compact development is actually the most efficient way to meet our future needs. And it actually preserves our open space.”
At the meeting, Madsen predicted the demand for housing near transit lines will triple. He showed there’s adequate room to build needed homes using infill opportunities, such as properties that are likely to be redeveloped because the land itself is more valuable than buildings now on it; in-law units; and priority development areas in downtowns and close to transit.
“Add it all together, and there’s plenty of room,” says Madsen. He calls this analysis “conservative,” because it doesn’t include land in public ownership such as former military bases.
In Marin, the priority areas are in the SMART corridor. (The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District is gearing up to build a 70-mile passenger railroad and parallel bicycle-pedestrian path from Cloverdale to Larkspur, with stations at San Rafael, Novato, Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg. See “Creating Sustainable Communities by Investing in Infill,” Green Scene, March 2009.) “The Bay Area can become the model metropolis,” Madsen says. “But it’s not automatic. The challenge is to build public support so it becomes ‘the right thing to do,’ akin to recycling. We need to engage the community and involve people in planning. We need to inspire each other and be inspired.”
Preaching to the choir
Questioned after the meeting, some audience members said the launch presentation didn’t go far enough. Michael Rex, an architect and affordable housing advocate based in Sausalito, says he complained afterward, not because he opposed the concept, but because he felt “this was a Housing 101 presentation made to an audience of grad students.
“They presented a positive argument about smart growth hoping that, by explaining the benefits, people will be supportive. But they were preaching to the choir with old information the audience already knew.
“What really needs to be talked about is how to address the concerns people have,” says Rex, who’s been interested in affordable housing for about 20 years. “Many associate ‘affordable housing’ with large buildings and increased traffic congestion. Because of this perception, we’re seeing more resistance than support in some communities.
Rex says the backlash shouldn’t be minimized, because it expresses serious concerns that must be dealt with. “Marin doesn’t want to be urbanized. We need to demonstrate that there are ways to provide affordable housing that don’t involve constructing large housing projects full of poor people. We need to show how we can get more people into denser neighborhoods without adding more cars; we need to be talking about how providing a mix of housing types and prices will enhance the quality of life for existing residents.
“If we want to achieve smart growth, we need a smarter strategy,” he continues, “one that goes beyond statistics and preaching and, instead, meaningfully addresses people’s concerns. Otherwise, the tug-of-wars over each project will continue, and Marin’s housing problems will remain.”
Elissa Giambastiani, founder and former director of the Marin Workforce Housing Trust, is another advocate who’s been pressing for affordable workforce housing for more than 20 years. “It’s wonderful that the Marin Community Foundation, Greenbelt Alliance and Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California are working together on this,” she says. “Most of the people at this meeting were already affordable housing advocates. It would be nice if the message could get out to people who don’t understand how important affordable housing is.”
She thinks involving those who hope for a sustainable community will be crucial to the Live Local campaign’s success. “They’re going to be asking individuals and groups to endorse the Live Local vision, so they can create a database of people who will support housing projects. It will be wonderful if this encourages local sustainability groups to become more involved. You can’t be a sustainable community if you have a huge number of workers who can’t afford to live here.”
Focus on finding solutions
Bob Brown is director of community development for the city of San Rafael. “The old vision of the American dream isn’t going to work for a lot of people in the future,” he says, agreeing the information presented at the meeting was compelling—but that “for the most part, they were preaching to the choir.”
San Rafael has been praised for carrying out a “visioning” process in the 1990s that ended by bringing new life to its downtown area, including affordable housing together with commercial development. “In the visioning process, the community recognized a problem and a threat—the decline of downtown. They were geared toward wanting to find solutions.” That’s key, he says, then admits getting people in Marin behind concepts like Live Local isn’t easy. “I’ve been doing this for 32 years,” he says, “and it’s getting harder and harder. The state keeps imposing more and more onerous requirements. Planners feel like a punching bag between the town and the state.”
“Done right, affordable developments can be real neighborhood assets,” says Robert Pendoley, former Corte Madera planning director, now retired. An example is San Clemente Place in Corte Madera. It comprises family housing with one, two and three bedrooms, developed and managed by the Ecumenical Association for Housing (EAH). “Novato has done an outstanding job with housing at Hamilton,” he adds. “San Rafael also has examples of higher-density housing that offer a wonderful lifestyle opportunity.”
While San Rafael got community collaboration through its visioning process, Corte Madera made use of a planning technique called a housing overlay zone. Pendoley explains that the overlay zone included mixed uses with triple the amount of commercial and residential development allowed in other zoning districts. It called for a density of 30 units per acre, half of which had to be affordable to low and moderate income inhabitants.
Incentives that encouraged developers to build below-market-rate housing included fast track processing. “There was a single design review for the permit and two hearings for the Planning Commission. There was an appeal that was resolved with one Council hearing.”
What’s next for Live Local?
“I was happy to see the housing advocates and a number of environment advocates sitting together with a shared sense of purpose,” says Madsen. “I hope we helped energize new folks who weren’t as familiar.
“This is the start of a robust coalition for sustainability in the broad sense of the word. I’d like a strong cross section of people and organizations to endorse the Live Local statement. That base of support will be able to speak in a consistent voice for affordable homes and smart plans for Marin in the months ahead.”
Perhaps this quote from Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan, posted on the Live Local website, says it best. “Workforce housing is a triple win for sustainability. Reduced commutes mean less greenhouse gas pollution, more dollars spent locally and more time to give to family, friends and community. And it can be done well.”