Affordable Housing

MENTION AFFORDABLE HOUSING in Marin and you’ll hear a variety of opinions. It’s for low-income workers and infirm elders and (heard most often) it’s subsidized housing. All these things are often true, but affordable housing is much more.

According to Leelee Thomas, principal planner for the county, there are “over 6,600 units of affordable housing in Marin.” And, truth be told, they’re hard to spot. Some of the more visible are The Fireside Apartments, 50 family and senior dwellings on Shoreline Highway in unincorporated Mill Valley. If you want to know what Fireside units look like, visit the website — they’re stunning. Equally impressive are affordable projects in Tiburon, Kentfield, San Rafael and San Anselmo.

In Corte Madera, units in a project called San Clemente Place rent for $400 to $1,895 a month, and tucked into the hillside behind the Marin Country Mart in Larkspur Landing is Drake’s Way, with 24 homes, many leased to seniors who’ve lived in Marin for years.

“The people who live in affordable housing are people we need in our community,” says Colin Russell, the project’s architect. “Not just police and firefighters, but teachers, grandparents, caregivers and retail personnel — who are now driving in from Vallejo, Pinole and San Ramon.”

And what does “affordable housing” mean? “It means people are living in a home they can afford,” answers Thomas. “A family earning less than $78,000 a year, or about 80 percent of Marin’s median income, would pay $1,950 a month for an apartment, which equates to an affordable 30 percent of their annual income.”

Marin’s median income for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is $97,100 a year. To be considered low income in Marin, a family of four can’t be earning more than about $78,000 a year. “Because incomes are so high in Marin, many seniors and working families are considered low income,” Thomas says.

And what makes affordable housing work? The magic word is subsidies. Various entities — federal, state and county governments, corporations seeking tax credits, and community foundations and nonprofits — help subsidize affordable housing. “The Marin Community Foundation has put money into every affordable project that’s been built in this county,” Thomas says.

After receiving such subsidies, developers like EAH Housing, Bridge, Eden Housing, Sausalito Rotary and Novato Rotary can build apartments and rent them for lower than market rates.

According to Russell, a member of the advocacy group Marin Environmental Housing Collaborative, most affordable housing in Marin is rental property, although a few places offer ownership opportunities. Of 85 new homes in Larkspur’s Rose Lane development, six were sold “at below market cost through the Marin Housing Authority’s First Time Homebuyers Program,” states the developer’s website. According to sales personnel, they sold out before construction began.

For buying affordable housing, a basic formula applies: The price is set so that someone earning, say, 60 percent of Marin’s median annual income buys the home for below market price. “However,” adds Russell, “once a home is sold as affordable, it must remain affordable — an owner can not resell it at market rate.”

On September 23, ground was broken on 10 two-story detached three-bedroom, twobath family homes. This affordable project, Mt. Burdell Place, is being developed by Habitat for Humanity of Greater San Francisco and is within walking distance of downtown Novato. “Prices will be affordable to lower-income working families,” says planner Thomas; “that way, people will be living in a home they can afford.”

The developments mentioned above are fully occupied, with a long list of potential renters and buyers waiting for openings. To maintain diversity, help reduce commuter traffic and create a more engaged community, Marin County would do well to build more — much more — affordable housing. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

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