Please don’t call it “affordable”

02/11/2016

How refreshing it is to watch a major project unfold in West Marin that appears to have absolutely no community opposition. There may well be some folks out there who, in the privacy of their living rooms, are opposed to affordable housing. But for reasons of their own, they appear to be silent ... so far. This is not true in East Marin, where opposition to affordable housing is widespread, vocal and pretty much reduced to fear-mongering about undesirable residents. But unlike so many previous coastal controversies that had us losing friends and hurling nasty insults across the street, the slow but sure growth of a commitment to secure housing for service workers, artists and other low-income people who either wish or need to live where they work moves peacefully forward.

Last Wednesday evening I attended a meeting at the Point Reyes Library, convened by the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin to discuss ways to expand the supply of housing stock for people who work at local businesses and farms, but commute 50 to 100 miles a day to get there and back again. There were 24 people at the meeting, 11 of them Hispanic. Maria Niggle translated both ways.

One by one, imaginative ideas were presented and explored, each offering a creative way to expand and protect affordable housing and preserve the economic and cultural diversity of West Marin. These included code amendments facilitating “junior” second units, a special fee or assessment on second-home purchases, a just cause requirement for evictions, the earmarking of some transient occupancy tax revenues for affordable housing, an ownership transfer tax, senior eviction rights, rent stabilization, reduced rent incentives for landlords, short-term rental restrictions, a landlord incentive program, income protection for Section 8 renters, second-unit amnesty and revised primary resident rules. All of these ideas will surely be thrown out to District 4 Supervisor candidates in the upcoming election cycle. 

But perhaps the most interesting of all the ideas was a suggestion that the A-word—“affordable”—be dropped from the conversation. “It sets off an unrealistic response and creates a NIMBY opposition that is really uninformed about the eventual occupants of low-rent and low-cost housing,”  … “So let’s instead say our goal is ‘permanent residential housing,’ or ‘secure housing,’ or ‘secured family housing.” Another idea was to also drop the word “housing.” As Kim Thompson, CLAM’s executive director, put the question: “When you walked out the door this morning, were you leaving your ‘housing’ or your ‘home’?” She’s open for better language suggestions at kim@clam-ptreyes.org.

From its launch in 2001, CLAM has pursued a goal of adding 50 units of affordable housing in West Marin over the next 25 years. With the almost certain county acquisition of the abandoned Point Reyes Coast Guard station, 36 new units of affordable housing could soon be added to the available stock. Another, perhaps better, way of describing that site is as 150 bedrooms, which means family as well as single-occupancy housing. And that means a safe, diverse and comfortable place to raise children.