Affordable housing is a pressing issue across this county and it was a good issue for the 2016-17 Marin County Civil Grand Jury to tackle.
In its report, issued April 12, the grand jury details obstacles to building affordable housing and urges the hiring of a countywide housing coordinator to help shepherd local housing projects.
We’re not convinced that hiring another top-level bureaucrat will change the level of political initiative that seems to be a primary barrier, whether its leadership or lack of local residents’ support.
Certainly there are bureaucratic obstacles, from a costly and time-consuming planning process to extraordinarily high governmental fees that hinder attempts to build affordable housing. But it’s going to take leadership to not only lower those barriers, but to overcome political opposition. Building affordable housing needs to be a local imperative, with a focus on finding community consensus on the right locations, size and design.
While the grand jury focuses on barriers, it misses a prime opportunity to detail — at greater length — the need to build affordable housing and how Marin can benefit, economically, environmentally and socially.
Critics of housing proposals often dwell on fear, from bringing lower-income households into neighborhoods to hurting the value of their homes.
The grand jury could have probed these issues and offered detailed and more expansive evidence in response.
While Marin has seen numerous battles over affordable housing, the irony is that many of the potential residents of these proposals likely earn more than some of the residents objecting to having them as neighbors. The difference is, often, that existing neighbors who criticize proposals were able to buy their houses 10 to 20 years ago, before the mean price of a Marin home grew past $1 million.
The grand jury recommends that a countywide housing coordinator be hired to not only focus on building “low-income affordable housing, but housing that is affordable for people who currently live and work in Marin.”
The report’s recommendation of working with local residents on the front end of a responsive planning process to help counter opposition is a good one. So is the grand jury’s complaint about the use of planning jargon obfuscating public involvement until someone translates it — often in the form of opposition.
The grand jury also recommended the preparation of a public map of an inventory of vacant and underutilized properties in Marin to help facilitate housing proposals.
Of course, if there is no local initiative, Sacramento lawmakers appear primed to steer local planning measures.
For example, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a former mayor of Glendale, has authored legislation that would require towns and cities that do little to build affordable housing to put some of their property tax revenue into a fund for other nearby communities to use to build housing.
“If you’re a community whose property values are skyrocketing because you’re not building, you will either have to build affordable housing or we will take a portion of that increase in property values and make you put it into a fund that nearby communities that want to do the right thing can use to build affordable housing,” she said, according to Capital Public Radio.
The Marin perspective on appropriate development and Sacramento’s are not the same — and state lawmakers are trying to come up with remedies for California’s housing crisis. In addition, the next round of Bay Area planning is taking shape, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by making room for building commute-shortening housing.
There’s also a growing political push for rent control, including a ballot-measure fight underway in Santa Rosa.
The grand jury has asked the county, cities and school and utility districts to respond to its findings and recommendations.
Insisting that the elected representatives on these boards consider their leadership role in helping build affordable housing that makes sense in Marin may be an important product of the grand jury’s work.
April 23, 2017
Marin Independent Journal