Federal cuts could further stress 
affordable living

08/01/2013

The debate in Washington over funding for low-income housing projects could have significant, long-term impacts on West Marin, where a dearth of affordable housing stock collides with some of the lowest average wages in the county. 

Funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development have long supported affordable housing projects in Bolinas and Point Reyes Station. 

Two HUD programs, the Community Development Block Grants and the Home Investment Partnership Program, provide funds to the county, which allocates them to organizations like the Bolinas Community Land Trust and the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin, or CLAM.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are considering budgets for the program; the Senate version increases the budget from about $51 billion to $54 billion, while the House version reduces it to $44 billion. The latter results in cuts to HOME of about 30 percent and to CDBG of roughly 50 percent. 

Roy Bateman, the community development coordinator for Marin, said that House-level cuts would probably result in staff reductions at the county level. They would also create particular problems for West Marin. “[In] West 

Marin we tend to fund a lot of small projects because of the geographic distance involved in serving people,” he said. Without enough staff, administering a larger number of smaller projects becomes infeasible. 

Federal funding already has been cut significantly over the years, Mr. Bateman said. Back in 2006, the county received a combined $2.9 million for CDBG and HOME. This fiscal year, Marin received $1.9 million. 

Those programs don’t go towards subsidies to renters themselves, as does Section 8 funding, but rather provides money for projects with units that can be rented at reasonable rates, as well as funding for upkeep of current properties. 

Bolinas Community Land Trust, for instance, is receiving $12,000 for ongoing stewardship this fiscal year, and West Marin Senior Services is getting $7,000 for its low-income residential care facility, Stockstill House. Those kinds of upkeep funds help keep rents low.

Kim Thompson, executive director of CLAM, said HUD funding is critical. “We struggle to meet the challenges of income inequality in Marin County,” she said. A reduction in federal funding “means that really viable projects from very strong organizations that have an extremely important niche in the county cannot provided much-needed housing.”

Ms. Thomspon’s organization did not receive the HUD funds it applied for this year, she said, explaining, “In part, that’s due to the diminishment of HUD funds and the more highly competitive nature of those funds.”

Although the Marin Community Foundation also provides funding for low-income housing, it cannot make up for millions in losses in government allocations. “There’s no way for us to backfill or supplement those cutbacks in federal funding,” said Thomas Peters, the foundation’s president and CEO. He noted that affordable housing projects need a minimum of a dozen funders, and government programs are key.

The need for more affordable housing in West Marin is taken as a given these days, with the area’s mixture of highly desirable coastal views, paucity of available housing, barriers to building and comparatively low median incomes.

Average home prices countywide have skyrocketed in recent years, climbing from $514,600 to over $900,000 between 1999 and 2006, according to the county. That higher average cost means a hopeful homeowner would need to make over $216,000 to afford a loan. 

But West Marin has some of the lowest median personal earnings in the county, according to a report released by the Marin Community Foundation last year. As a whole the county has a median annual income of over $44,000, with areas like Tiburon at over $80,000. 

But in the census tract encompassing Point Reyes Station, Nicasio, Tomales and Dillon Beach, median earnings are $32,280, the fifth lowest of the 48 tracts ranked in the report. Bolinas and Stinson Beach, at $31,766, were fourth lowest, and Olema and Inverness, at $33,037, were sixth lowest. And that’s the median, meaning that half of residents make even less.

“Wages that folks are earning are out of balance with the cost of housing in West Marin,” said Leelee Thomas, a principal planner who heads the Affordable Housing Program.

At those wages, they are probably paying too much for housing. According to the county, for those who make 80 percent or less of Marin’s average median income— which for a family of four in Marin is  $103,000, or $82,40 for two people— 83 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, which HUD considers excessive.

The foundation report also noted that the high price of housing results in a larger commuter population, with 60 percent of those who work in Marin commuting from outside the county.

While there are roughly 80 or so units of affordable housing in West Marin, ranging from single-occupancy rooms to multi-bedroom units, turnover is rare. And even as that creates stability in the community, it also means others may have little chance of accessing what exists. “People that live in units don’t leave,” said Lesa Kramer, the head of the Bolinas Community Land Trust.

And just this year, more potential affordable housing projects in West Marin have either hit roadblocks or the chopping block. 

The Inverness Way Inn was a potential site for an affordable housing complex but adequate funding was not acquired in time, and the inn was sold to a bed and breakfast operator in January. The Grady Ranch, another possible site, lost support from the Marin Community Foundation because of concerns it would not be able to find adequate funding. A spokesperson for the property told the Light in June that the owner is exploring other funding
options. 

Permits for plans to develop the Grandi Building, which would have included three affordable units for employees, expired in late 2012. According to the county, the owner, Ken Wilson, is looking into renewing them.

But affordable housing funded with government money comes with its own constraints because of HUD guidelines. 

Although those who make too much money clearly cannot qualify, those who make too little are also cut off from access, as federal guidelines do not, for instance, allow renting to someone who would have to pay 70 percent of his or her income for rent because that person presumably would be unable to make ends meet. 

And although Section 8 provides additional financial assistance to some, the county isn’t currently accepting applications for the program. The last time the county opened up the waitlist, for a week in 2009, it received 11,200 applications—over four times the number that ultimately receive funds.

Currently, 72 housing units in West Marin receive Section 8 housing vouchers, 59 of which house just one or two people. Although the House budget preserves current funding levels, it’s not necessarily secure in perpetuity, Mr. Bateman said. “Long-term, the overall agenda of folks that want to cut the HUD budget is to cut every program as much as they can get away with.” 

And even if the voucher waiting list, which currently contains 67 West Marin residents, weren’t closed, the county notes that the vouchers are difficult to use in this part of the county because of both the lack of affordable housing units and the inability of many units to measure up to HUD’s quality standards.

That’s why second units are also needed, Ms. Kramer said. “We believe second units are really one of the few options we have to increase the stock of affordable housing in Bolinas,” she said.

In January 2012, Marin’s development code lifted the prohibition on second dwellings, which cannot surpass 750 square feet, in Bolinas. But so far, the county has received no applications. 

One obstacle to building such units is the potentially laborious process to which properties in the Coastal Zone are subject. But new Coastal Zone maps, included in the pending Local Coastal Program, exclude part of the gridded mesa from being appealable to the coastal commission, which could assuage those who worry that NIMBY-inclined neighbors will attempt to derail projects with expensive appeals. Those maps, however, will be subject to public comment and commission approval.

Ms. Thomas said there are other obstacles to second units, including the basic question of whether landowners want additional people on their property.

She added that the Housing Element—the policy document that guides affordable housing development in the county, for which an environmental review was recently approved by the county Planning Commission—outlines agricultural housing, which would be funded with a combination of money from the Marin Community Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture. 

While Ms. Thomas said it was difficult to say how many such units would result, “Every unit that is rehabilitated or replaced, repaired or added is impacting a family.”

Although the housing situation can look bleak, and some may feel West Marin will inevitably become another Carmel, Ms. Thompson and Ms. Kramer aren’t giving up hope. “I think it’s always going to be a struggle,” Ms. Thompson said, but added, “Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed citizens to change things.”