Some concrete solutions for West Marin’s want of workforce housing

05/01/2014

Spend a minute thinking of all of the people under age 50 that you value in West Marin. Now imagine 75 percent of them have moved away. Without real affordable housing solutions, that reality won’t happen so suddenly, but it’s nevertheless a real possibility over time. 

There has been ample discussion in local newspapers and around dinner tables about the lack of affordable—heck, available—housing. Since I moved here in 2006, the paltry rental options have dwindled as units were bought by non-locals or converted to vacation rentals. At the time of the United States Census in 2010, 39 percent of homes in Inverness and 29 percent in Bolinas were unoccupied. It’s only gotten worse since then. 

Thanks to the area’s popularity, Proposition 13 and other factors there has been a complete market failure of low and middle-income housing in West Marin. I believe we are now reaching a crisis point. We need proactive policy changes to ensure that West Marin’s communities are resilient, diverse and thriving 10, 20, 30 years from now. 

Here are some potential solutions. Due to septic, water or existing density limitations, these ideas won’t work everywhere, but I present them with the goal of starting a discussion about how we might take concrete, community-specific steps to address affordable housing. 

To dispel readers’ worst fears, all of these solutions are focused inside our community plan boundaries, and do not involve subdivision. I respect and admire West Marin’s conservation legacy—84 percent of the county is protected from development—and therefore wish to focus the discussion on sustainable community development solutions to our workforce-housing deficit.

 

Example #1: Density bonus for affordable housing.

 

Teton County, Wyoming (also known as Jackson Hole), where I lived before coming to Point Reyes, has a two-times density bonus for workforce and affordable housing (meaning twice the density per parcel). A homeowner can legally build a deed-restricted—one that can’t be subdivided—second home if it is sold at a price for which the mortgage would be affordable for a local median-income family. It can later be resold to another local buyer, but only at the purchase price plus inflation. This allows the median-income owner to build equity while keeping the price affordable for future buyers.  

If this was applied to Point Reyes Station, for example, well-meaning homeowners also interested in a real estate sales boost could develop homes, in effect creating a local workforce home real-estate market. A third party, such as the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin, could manage the application and sales transaction process in exchange for a 3 to 4 percent transaction fee (like a real estate agent receives). 

According to the 2001 Point Reyes Station Community Plan, if such density bonuses were applied only to parcels equal to or greater than an acre, 263 affordable homes could potentially be built for local people who already live and/or work here.

 

Example #2: Floor-to-Area Ratio versus one primary house per parcel.

 

The suburban, single-family home zoning model that was so prevalent during the building boom of the last 50 years is unsustainable, yet we allow ourselves to be beholden to it. Why? Many counties use floor-to-area ratio (FAR) limits, sizing the development footprint in relation to the property size. To take this idea a step further, if you can legally build a 3,000-square-foot home on your property and the your current FAR is 1,500 square feet, why couldn’t you be allowed you to build another 1,500-square-foot home or two 750-square-foot homes on the same property? I propose that homeowners be able to build more units on their property, sensitive to building setbacks and up to the maximum cumulative FAR, if the other unit or units are sold or rented at an affordable rate and managed as in
Example #1. 

 

Example #3: Fee forgiveness for affordable second units.

 

One of the other big side effects of Prop 13 is the dwindling property tax base to pay for county services, including firefighting, law enforcement, schools and planning. In response, many California counties have replaced property taxes with fees to fund the planning and building departments. Unfortunately the fees help make the price to build high enough that it’s not cost-effective to build an affordably priced second unit. Waiving fees for the creation of affordably priced rentals and/or providing amnesty for (or “grandfathering” in) old units that meet basic safety and health codes provide incentives for property owners to provide affordable rentals. 

These are a few ideas that could help address the workforce-housing deficit in West Marin. By increasing density within the community plan boundaries—ideally, restricted to those who live and/or work in the area—we could help ensure that West Marin remains a vibrant, sustainable multi-cultured, socially diverse
community. 

Some may believe that any growth is bad, but no one can escape the growth of tourism in our communities. Things change. West Marin is never going to be like it was when we first experienced it. We can either proactively change it for the good or do nothing and let the bad effects of our inaction take root. 

Please join me on Wednesday, June 4 at 7 p.m. in the Dance Palace Church Space for a presentation and discussion that will focus on concrete steps to address our affordable housing deficit. If you wish to discuss these ideas outside this forum, feel free to email to me at fmrsjr@gmail.com

 

Frederick Smith has lived and worked in Inverness and Point Reyes Station full-time and seasonally since 2006. He was the executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin from 2007 to 2010 and has an M.B.A. from the University of California, Davis Graduate School of Management and an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. He currently performs freelance business consulting and advising and sits on the steering committees or boards of Slow Money North Bay, the Point Reyes Farmers Market and the Mt. Vision LION.