Affordable housing limited by zoning rules and hazards


The State of California is asking Marin to plan for thousands of new affordable homes in unincorporated areas, a goal that is stressing county planners and alarming supervisors, who don’t believe Marin is suited for mass development. Everyone agrees that affordable housing is a major need, but barriers to construction—the risk of fire and flood, a lack of sewer and water service, and a prevalence of properties zoned for single families—stand in the way. 

Still, the county must show that it has the capacity for 3,510 new homes by 2030, with nearly half for low-income residents. If not, the state could subject Marin to its fixed standards for approving affordable housing projects, thus eliminating local control. 

“It’s a very frightening scenario, so we need to keep our oar in the water and do what we can in the city-centered corridor. The implications could really be very bad,” Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters said.

The Board of Supervisors is concerned that the state’s lofty housing goals could push development into West Marin, contradicting the countywide plan to build around Highway 101 and keep the coast open. Supervisors are determined to prevent rural development, and they made their case for lowering Marin’s housing allocation in a letter to the Association of Bay Area Governments.

“With an increase of this magnitude, the county may not be able to adopt a compliant housing element unless we put housing in environmentally sensitive areas, prone to fires, flooding, and sea level rise,” Supervisor Katie Rice wrote. “The county would be forced to develop in green fields and areas outside of transit networks, existing residential development and job centers.”

Marin updates the housing element of its countywide plan every eight years. After the state determines the housing need for the Bay Area, the Association of Bay Area Governments divvies up the allocation among its cities and counties. The allocation is broken down into four categories, from very-low to above-moderate income. The Bay Area’s draft allocation more than doubled for the upcoming cycle due to population growth, a greater emphasis on social equity and changes to state law and allocation methods. 

In unincorporated Marin, planners are facing an increase in allotted housing of 1,700 percent, and cities are also seeing a large jump. About half of the new homes must be for low and very low-income households. Planners must identify parcels that are suited for housing and strategies for making it easier to build; whether or not a developer takes advantage of the opportunity is out of their hands.

Marin’s current housing element, certified in 2015, calls for 185 new homes by 2023. Developers are having no problem building homes at above-market rates, with 152 homes built from 2015 to 2019, surpassing the state’s goal of 61. But they have failed to develop residences for low- and very low-income residents, with just 43 of 77 homes built in the past five years.

Planners are focusing their efforts along Highway 101, where the infrastructure is best suited for more housing. To spur development, they will use new objective design standards to evaluate projects, rather than the typical discretionary review process that can create unanticipated hurdles. The new standards were pushed by the state and will be considered by the Board of Supervisors later this month. Planners will also consider various methods of rezoning to create more multi-family housing properties outside of racially concentrated areas.

The need for affordable housing is clear: Marin has one of the highest median incomes in the state, yet many working families and seniors struggle to meet their basic needs. Farmworkers, retail salespersons and childcare workers are considered very low income. County employees, including police officers, firefighters and dispatchers, typically earn a low-income wage. About 700 students in Marin experience some form of homelessness each year. And the racial disparities related to housing are stark: Two thirds of white residents own a home, while only one fourth of Black and Latino residents can say the same.

“The market is only serving the way upper echelon of consumers, and the rest have no options,” said Kim Thompson, the director of community engagement for the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin, or CLAM.

CLAM’s waitlist has doubled in size over the past two years, with 206 households now waiting for an affordable opportunity. The people on this list form the foundation of the local economy—they are servers, grocers, teachers, gardeners, medical workers and ranch hands.

Land-use policy

The Marin Countywide Plan, first adopted in 1973, provides the foundation for how the built and natural environment are experienced in Marin today. The plan divides the county into four sections: the coastal corridor, the inland rural corridor and the city-centered corridor; a baylands corridor was added in 2007 to protect wetlands on the eastern shoreline. 

West Marin falls into the coastal corridor and the inland rural corridor, both of which prioritize parkland, agriculture and the preservation of existing coastal communities. Any new housing in these areas is intended to stay within the villages. The city-centered corridor consists of Marin’s 11 incorporated cities and towns and is the focus of urban growth.  

From the countywide plan comes the county development code, which zones each property for specific uses. In West Marin, 63 percent of parcels are zoned for open space or agriculture, 33 percent are zoned for single families, and just 1 percent allow for multi-family dwellings. In the city-centered corridor, 10 percent of parcels are zoned for multi-family dwelling, and these are concentrated in racially segregated areas. In Marin City, where 76 percent of residents are people of color, 64 percent of properties are zoned for multi-family housing. The county is obligated to look for housing outside of this neighborhood.

The history of zoning contributes to race-based disparities in housing, according to a study published last year by the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, titled “Roots, Race and Place: A History of Racially Exclusionary Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.” The report noted that single-family zoning “established massive inequities in who owned land, who had access to financing, and who held political power, all of which determined—and still remain at the root of deciding—who can call the Bay Area home. While systems of exclusion have evolved between eras, research indicates that it was in the early part of the twentieth century that the foundation for continuing inequality in the twenty-first century was laid. By building inequality into the physical landscape, cities added ‘unprecedented durability and rigidity to previously fragile and fluid [social] arrangements.’”

This plays out in West Marin, where change is resisted, and more than 85 percent of residents are white.

Local opportunities

Land trusts in West Marin work within intense single-family zoning limitations on the coast, carving out housing in the villages and seizing on larger projects when there is an opportunity. Other than a few large projects and a couple of apartment purchases, West Marin’s land trusts are focused on the single-family home environment, which comes with a hidden opportunity: single-family properties are allowed a second residence of up to 800 square feet, and a junior accessory dwelling that is attached to the house. The two extra units are not counted toward density, yet they effectively create opportunities for three homes on one lot. 

CLAM and its land trust partners created the Real Community Rentals program in 2016, which incentivizes homeowners to carve out affordable rentals by offering tenant screening, reduced permit fees and zero-interest loans. The program has helped house 31 people. 

Building on its success, CLAM is working on a second initiative, called Community Housing Solutions. Through a number of conversations, Ms. Thompson said she has heard the desire for multi-family living on single-family properties, both across generations and among community members. Also, many homeowners in West Marin are property rich but cash poor, with a valuable deed but a low income. CLAM is exploring purchasing their properties, giving them the cash they need to stay where they are and enabling a second unit to be built, then rented or sold. The deal would afford the property owner with financial security, the tenant with reasonable rent, and the community with long-term affordable housing.

“We will secure a more racially and economically diverse future,” Ms. Thompson said.

Two rare developments are underway: The Bolinas Community Land Trust is in the process of obtaining permits to build eight housing units on one of the town’s only multi-family properties, and CLAM is working with the county to develop the former Coast Guard site in Point Reyes Station, which includes 36 townhomes and a dormitory building.

Arianne Dar, the executive director of the Bolinas land trust, said that multi-family properties are the most cost-effective way to create affordable housing. Of course everybody would love a free-standing house on an acre of land, she said, but that is unrealistic when land, water, wastewater capacity and roads are limited.

“It’s a huge issue, and really governments should start making exceptions for affordable housing,” she said. “There’s no reason why they can’t change the zoning for something if it’s deed-restricted for affordable housing, but so far they have not been willing to do that.”