A socially equitable West Marin? Yes, please!

03/03/2021

Recent reporting in the Light explored the new mandate to create 3,510 new units of affordable housing in unincorporated Marin in the next eight years. To that goal, we say: Yes, please! 

West Marin has nothing to fear and everything to gain with higher goals for affordable housing over the next eight years. In fact, the life force of our historic coastal villages depends on it. The first place to look is not new construction, it’s utilizing our built environment in a much more efficient way, and with benefits for all involved: people, community and the environment. 

West Marin is a single-family home environment, and many of its homeowners are baby boomers now in their senior years. The average age in West Marin is 67, compared to 50 in the rest of the county. Over the next five to 10 years, we are up for a seismic shift in who owns those homes. The passing on of equity in our communities will determine the viability of a racially and economically diverse community going forward.

Three local women have seen the value in supporting this diversity and have counted the community among their most cherished inheritors. Ruth Fleshman, who lives in the village core of Point Reyes Station, decided that when she passes, her home will be sold to CLAM at far below market rate; the sale proceeds will benefit a relative of Ruth’s and CLAM will own the home and maintain it for affordable housing forever. Patsy Bannerman on the Point Reyes Mesa also wants her home and its second unit to benefit the community when she passes. She has designated that a young, local worker will own the property in collaboration with CLAM, which will ensure affordability each time the home is sold again. And Susan Brayton of Inverness has committed to leaving her property to CLAM.

The forethought, creativity and heart-commitment of these women to the community they love sets an example for others. Altogether, these individuals have gifted six permanently affordable homes to West Marin’s future. Could you or someone you know add to the tally?

Many would-be homebuyers’ desires have evolved beyond the single-family home model. A number of individuals and families would choose, if given the opportunity, to live in closer relationship with one another and reduce their environmental footprint. CLAM is exploring ways to shift the single-family, single-owner house to multifamily, cooperative-owner homes, opening up access to ownership much more broadly. This shift is made easier by the prevalence of West Marin properties with one or more second units already on them. Such cooperative housing not only supports more sustainable lifestyle choices; it can also benefit single senior homeowners who may live on modest incomes and need additional support to stay in place. CLAM invites your feedback and interest. 

Looking to other areas of West Marin’s built environment, our village downtowns come into focus. Our downtown cores were built before WWII, in an era that did not separate commercial and residential properties. Some of these properties, with housing built into them, are vacant and blighted. Could they come into the community’s hands for small-site housing and permanently affordable commercial space? Can the overlay of county and coastal commission zoning support this use, as keeping with the character of the downtown core? And can we preserve residential units in the downtown core for worker housing in the next generations, keeping a balance and supporting the local visitor-based economy? A number of homes in the Point Reyes Station downtown core were built for workers at the long-vacant Grandi building, which itself has modest space for residential units.

Looking farther afield, what county or state-owned parcels might be used for the development of housing? What about homes for teachers on school sites or housing on underused church properties, as is being considered by the San Geronimo Community Presbyterian Church? Already, new partnerships are in place to explore agricultural worker housing within the existing built environment.

The opportunities are abundant within our existing neighborhoods if we take a look and partner in new ways. As we say at CLAM, everyone is a part of the solution. We also say that building teams for solutions is the biggest piece of the equation. Whether it is the community partnering with West Marin land trusts or land trusts partnering with the county and funders, we are all in the game together.

CLAM, the Bolinas Community Land Trust, the San Geronimo Valley Affordable Housing Association and the Stinson Beach Affordable Housing Committee all have a track record over the past eight years of creating affordable housing backed by enthusiastic community support, converting and building 64 units to date with more than 80 in the pipeline. These housing organizations are coming together to get big things done that none of us could do alone, including finding access to financing, streamlining the production of homes, and leveraging our collective voice for change. 

Our success is part and parcel of the broad and historic community support for this work. We plan to bring that support to discussions with the county on specific ways it can help us take significant strides in meeting its housing goal. County support may include streamlined and integrated permitting, updated septic regulations and an assurance that permitting timelines do not contribute to displacement and community disintegration, thereby lessening our racial and economic diversity. Moreover, a common conversation between the county, West Marin land trusts and funders can lead to a streamlined business plan, with up-front investment and planning across all parties for maximum impact. 

Our pandemic era is giving rise to new perspectives, new approaches and all-hands-on-deck collaboration. We have the opportunity to remake the affordable housing development environment. With community involvement and support, community land trusts, county departments, and funders all engaged and aligned, there is no limit to what we can accomplish. We all know the need for greater affordable housing is not about a unit count, it’s about racially and economically diverse, sustainable communities, where people have access to ownership and the community benefits from stability.

Who creates our next chapter? We do. When is the time to write that chapter? Now. Each property created or protected by a community land trust stays in the community’s hands forever. To more homes, more access to ownership, a community that stays vibrant for its next chapter, we say: Yes, please! 

 

Kim Thompson is the director of community engagement for the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin. She lives in Inverness.