Making room for affordable housing

02/10/2021

A recent report from the Othering and Belonging Institute of the University of California, Berkeley specifically mentions the San Geronimo Valley as being “overwhelming white and [segregated] since it was settled….” The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that 93 percent of valley residents are white compared to 79 percent countywide, and just 5 percent are Latino, compared to 15 percent countywide. Valley historian Owen Clapp, a staff member of the San Geronimo Valley Affordable Housing Association, offers some historical perspective: The Lagunitas Development Company included restrictive covenants in its 1912 subdivision of valley properties that stated that houses could only be occupied by Caucasians.  Thankfully, such covenants have been deemed illegal, but they still remain on the original deeds of older homes in the valley. This is our legacy, not only in the San Geronimo Valley, but in other communities in Marin, the Bay Area and throughout the nation. 

Land-use policies and zoning have contributed to our segregated society in Marin. Other factors—environmental concerns and high acquisition, construction and permitting costs—also contribute to the problem. Marin County‘s Community Development Agency is taking a hard look as some of these zoning restrictions in a study that shows a strong correlation between multi-unit housing restrictions and ethnic minorities being locked out of renting or owning housing. Their study was well received at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Jan. 12 and will be taken up at future meetings, accompanied by a process for community engagement and involvement.

Times have changed and public perception about diversity, equity and inclusion is changing, too. NIMBYism is not a majority view in the valley, as evidenced by the overwhelming support of valley voters for Measure W, which provides revenues for affordable housing and fire safety in West Marin.

We recognize that the idea of affordable housing may continue to be viewed negatively among some residents. Community education is a major part of the work that we do at the San Geronimo Valley Affordable Housing Association through housing fairs, workshops and other public events, and our website, mailings and newsletters. Our mission is to create, preserve and manage affordable housing here and beyond. Our vision is to maintain a more diverse and vibrant community that retains its unique rural and natural qualities while offering housing opportunities for people of all income levels and walks of life. We want to be a community that says “Yes, in my backyard.” 

The increasing cost of housing that has exponentially exceeded the incomes of lower- and middle-income retirees and working people is not the only factor contributing to the difficulty in making room for people who want to live in the valley. There are additional significant impediments to the creation and preservation of affordable infill housing. These consist of the related problems of waste management, water usage and our reliance on septic systems— issues that have long been and continue to be matters of important environmental and health concerns. Older septic systems may not be functioning optimally and repair and replacement costs are beyond the reach of many property owners. Homes in the valley have septic systems that were permitted based on the number of bedrooms in the house, regardless of the number of occupants or water usage. These criteria, which are historically imbedded in our county building codes, may not be a reasonable basis for determining the viability or true capacity of the existing systems. The septic situation is a major barrier for the creation of accessory dwelling units and junior accessory dwelling units on what would otherwise be buildable lots.  

Our association is part of a group of other West Marin housing organizations—CLAM, the Bolinas Community Land Trust and the Stinson Beach Affordable Housing Committee—that is identifying and examining these issues and seeking policy changes and solutions. The group has been meeting with Supervisor Dennis Rodoni and State Senator Mike McGuire and their staffs about these matters.

Our group continues to actively explore the possibilities of potential small neighborhood projects and we will work with our four villages and neighborhoods in the valley and Nicasio as those projects become feasible. We are very hopeful that our work can serve as an example of how affordable housing can be achieved with the support and participation of the community.

We continue to look for and find solutions to what are some of the most thorny and complex issues facing our society and our own community today: social justice and affordable housing. We welcome and appreciate the engagement and support of our community—our residents, our businesses, our nonprofits, our faith-based organizations, our school districts, our funders and foundations, and our county and state agencies. We welcome your feedback and, of course, hope you will join us in our efforts.

 

Suzanne Sadowsky has lived in the San Geronimo Valley since 1975 and has served on the board of the San Geronimo Valley Affordable Housing Association since 2014.