Affordable units could get boost in West Marin

01/10/2013

Planners working to reshape housing policies in unincorporated parts of the county have moved one step closer to updating a housing plan largely centered around helping lower-income families afford to live in Marin, which boasts some of the state’s steepest real-estate prices.

A 200-page environmental impact report that is part of a process to update the Marin County Housing Element was released December 20. The housing document applies to West Marin and other unincorporated

areas in the county, and includes a range of revisions aimed at building a “sustainable community by supplying affordable housing to the full range of our diverse community and workforce.”

That effort soon may emerge locally, where planners are hoping to allow for the development of about 240 low-income housing units on a 230-acre portion of the Grady Ranch, along Lucas Valley Road. The draft Housing Element would also allow for the conversion of the Inverness Valley Inn into about 20 low-income housing units.

Inn owner Leslie Adkins said the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin (CLAM) had partnered with the Suburban Alternative Land Trust to turn the property into affordable housing, but the plans were scratched after funding fell through. She added that she and her husband, Alden, recently sold the inn to “experienced innkeepers.”

The draft Housing Element underlines efforts to conserve open space while meeting shifting housing needs. It includes plans to expand the transportation system and ease building regulations as a way to spur low-income housing projects. It also proposed lifting building density limitations from a handful of the nearly 20 sites it marked for potential development. The new limit, 30 housing units per acre, would give a “financial edge to affordable housing” over development at market value.

Tom Lai, assistant director of the Community Development Agency, explained that the proposal—applicable only to low-income housing in sites zoned for commercial use—does not exceed the county’s general density limitations. Rather, they would allow the county to bypass limitations specific to the properties listed in the draft.

A broader range of housing options might help reduce the incidence of lower-income residents overpaying for housing, the draft states. Marin County’s estimated median household income was $103,000 last year, nearly two times the state average. In 2010, the county had the highest median household income in the state.

Like other counties across California, Marin is required under state law to update its housing plan every five years—though extensions are granted on a discretionary basis—partly to assess socioeconomic changes and shifting housing demands. The plan was last updated in 2003, after which it was readopted as part of the Countywide Plan in 2007.

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development requires that the county offer a “realistic” assessment of potential for development. The report lists nearly 20 prospective sites, mainly in eastern Marin.

“We are showing the state that there is an available supply of appropriate zoning that could be realized,” Mr. Lai said.

The draft indicates plans to offer financial and other incentives for developers wary of investing in a type of housing normally inhibited by costly construction permits and scant public funding.

The county would also have the ability to waive certain construction permits for lower-income housing in residential areas within the “planned zoning district.” Building restrictions in that district are typically more flexible than in what is called the “conventional zoning district.”

Other incentives include altering building regulations and exempting developers from certain building fees, including all fees imposed by the Community Development Agency on housing for tenants categorized as low and very low income.  

In recent years, county supervisors have funneled an annual $250,000 to a low-income housing fund. And last year, supervisors and the Marin Community Foundation announced their intent to create a housing plan aimed at building and renovating 200 low-income homes over the next five years.

The push to expand low-income housing comes in a county in which prospective sites for development are a “scarce community resource,” confined mainly to cities and towns in the east, where property values are high. In West Marin, widespread federal and state control of land has posed “significant environmental constraints,” including within the coastal zone, where development is limited by protections for agricultural land and visitor access to beaches.

According to the draft, the county faces a noticeable “community resistance” to new development, with environmental and homeowner groups creating “significant political barriers” to the expansion of low-income housing.

County officials are working with advocacy groups, including the Marin Environmental Housing Collaborative, to close that rift, the report said.

A 45-day public review of the housing element, which is available online, will end February 4; until then residents can send comments either by email or in person to the Community Development Agency at the Civic Center, in San
Rafael. A meeting is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. this Monday, January 14 at the Civic Center, where planning commissioners will read written comments and give the public a chance to voice their input on the report.

Commissioners then will hold a hearing on the draft Housing Element at 10 a.m. on February 11, at which point they will decide whether to recommend it for approval by the Board of Supervisors.

 

To view the environmental report, visit http://www.co.marin.ca.us/depts/CD/main/comdev/eir.cfm.  To view the draft of the housing plan, visit http://www.co.marin.ca.us/comdev/housing/HousingElement.cfm.