Grand jury on the barriers to affordable housing


Marin residents experience the high cost of housing in many ways, including financial strain, heavy traffic, problems associated with homeless people and the likelihood that the next generation will leave the county, according to a recent report by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury.

The report, titled “Overcoming Barriers to Housing Affordability” and issued in April, suggested that the county’s high land costs, difficult permitting process and widespread public opposition to development create barriers to low-income housing. It recommended hiring a regional housing coordinator position that would operate throughout the county to coordinate funding sources and developers, identify underutilized properties and create jurisdiction-specific plans. A countywide civic mediation program, it added, could facilitate community dialogue around controversial projects.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors issued a response to the report, accepting some key findings and recommendations but disagreeing with others. The board agreed that vocal opposition to the construction of new housing can deter developers, but it took issue with the finding that the cost of land and development makes low-income affordable housing unfeasible and that active planning for such housing is not taking place. The board rejected the suggestion of a regional housing coordinator position.

“I really appreciate the grand jury looking into the issue of housing affordability and elevating the difficulties so we can focus on them and discuss solutions and also what we already might be doing in some cases,” Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said. 

The jury described five underlying problems plaguing housing affordability. Among them were community resistance to new development, the high cost of land and construction due to low-density zoning laws, an inefficient planning process that slows projects and discordant approaches to affordable housing in Marin’s towns and cities.

The jury—which reviewed local and federal laws and regulations, studied county demographics and financial reports and interviewed advocacy groups and county department managers and planning staff during its investigation—illustrated common reactions to civic projects.

“What if a proposed project is upsetting: a high-density housing project (that will add to traffic), a homeless shelter (that will bring in undesirable people), a flood detention basin (that might cause local flooding), or a low-income housing development (that will decrease property values)?” the report implored.

The director of the county’s Community Development Agency, Brian Crawford, said fears like those can distract from the goals at hand.

“When decisions about affordable housing become more localized, opposition tends to build around why a development proposal is not a good fit for a particular community,” he wrote in an email. “One of the important roles of our staff is to keep the focus on real issues and to ensure the county follows our local land use regulations as well as the state Housing Accountability Act.”

That 1982 act protects housing development efforts by requiring a specific set of findings that make it difficult for local governments to reduce the density of a project for subjective reasons like neighborhood character, aesthetics or other difficult-to-measure—and impossible to challenge—criteria.

The grand jury found that developers routinely report that they do not try to build housing in Marin because of burdensome local regulatory requirements and citizen complaints.

Wendi Kallins, who is on the steering committee of Coalition for Livable Marin, agreed. She said the idea that “we don’t have room for anybody” has got to go if the county wishes to attract good affordable housing projects. “We need developers who are sensitive to the community and to the environment, and for that, there has to be openness to building more housing,” she said.

According to Mr. Crawford, it’s difficult for the county to attract affordable housing proposals “in part due to the reputation we’ve developed and in part because we have a hard time competing against more urbanized jurisdictions that have passed bond measures creating significant amounts of funding to subsidize affordable housing.”

In their response to the report, supervisors adopted a series of recommendations proposed by the jury, many of which detail procedures already in place. First, each planning department will continue offering opportunities for developers to speak, early in the process, with relevant staffers to discuss impacts of proposed developments and potential solutions to problems. The Community Development Agency will continue developing a proactive community outreach strategy with accessible language that alerts communities before starting a formal planning process for any project that might be controversial.

In addition, the county committed to fast-tracking low-income housing projects through planning and permitting processes. 

But supervisors pushed back on the jury’s findings that the costs of land and development make it too expensive to build low-income affordable housing in Marin and that there is no active planning for the creation of such housing. The board acknowledged that land values and developments are impediments, but suggested that subsidies can offer a solution, pointing to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund in Marin, which has $6 million in funds for new affordable housing projects. Concerning the planning process, the board pointed to the Countywide Plan, which serves at a blueprint for meeting housing needs at all income levels.

The county has also begun working on a suite of affordable housing policy options in 2015, aimed at moving “the pendulum toward creating more housing options for lower-income folks,” Mr. Crawford said. These include $1 million set aside to support the creation of family rental housing, an effort to acquire existing rental housing for permanent affordable housing, a landlord incentives program through the Marin Housing Authority and a new ordinance that addresses landlords rejecting prospective tenants that rely on Section 8 housing vouchers.

Mr. Crawford said the board will take up additional measures to improve the effectiveness of existing affordable housing regulations in early August.

Lastly, the board rejected the jury’s finding that responsibility for housing in Marin is fragmented and that there is little coordination among county agencies, cities and towns. A regional housing coordinator position is unnecessary, supervisors argued, as these services are already provided by staff and because state law gives municipalities and the unincorporated area of the county responsibility for reviewing and making decisions within their individual boundaries.

“[Perhaps] the board did not have the funding for this position,” Ms. Kallins remarked. “I think there does need to be more coordination—the piecemeal approach is not really addressing the problem.” 

The jury made two other recommendations directed not at the county’s supervisors, but at its school and utility districts. The report asked each school district to investigate the feasibility of building teacher and staff workforce housing on their land and suggested that each utility district waive hook-up fees for low-income housing projects and accessory dwelling units.

The Light has not acquired all the responses from those districts, but both Bolinas-Stinson Union and Lagunitas School Districts were hailed by the grand jury for recognizing that the cost of housing in Marin is an impediment to recruiting and retaining qualified staff. They both cited Senate Bill 1413, which paved the way for schools to establish and implement affordable workforce housing, and said research is underway to determine how to best approach a situation that requires land, financing and property management.

Additionally, the Bolinas Community Public Utility District replied that though the recommendation to waive hook-up fees does not apply to Bolinas because of its moratorium on new water and sewer service connections, there are instances where existing water connections are transferred between properties. In such instances, the district charges the property owner the time and materials costs of moving the water meter, costs that range from the mid-hundreds to the thousands of dollars. In order to support the creation of affordable housing, the district said it could modify its policies to waive these costs for affordable units. 

BCPUD also said it is pursuing two other initiatives to reduce the need for septic upgrades and replacements, which can be significant barriers to building housing: the “Todd Drainage Plan” on the Mesa, which helps lower the wet-season water table and improve septic system performance, and supporting the Bolinas Community Land Trust’s efforts to get the county to waive required upgrades to well-functioning septic systems for affordable accessory dwelling units.

Though Inverness Public Utility District has not yet submitted a response, it does not require hook-up fees for these second units.