What's Affordable Housing?

The City of Novato never saw it coming. A simple mass mailing to property owners last June ignited a controversy whose reverberations still echo today—and likely will for years to come. The best of intentions brought out the worst in some residents: intimidation, name-calling, heckling and scaremongering. It happened in city council meetings, web forums and even the quiet streets of upscale neighborhoods.

The culprit? Affordable housing—a concept that may sound benignly civic-minded but proved to be fraught with conflict. The fuse ignited when Novato selected 13 sites for rezoning to accommodate up to 30 units per acre of new housing for the elderly, the disabled and low- to moderate-income families who meet state requirements. Some parcels held stores, others churches; some were ranchland and some vacant.

As soon as the city informed nearby residents, things got nasty. Community groups formed to oppose what they called high-density housing. Fears of higher crime and lower property values ran rampant. Elected officials and city staff were besieged with complaints. Meetings of the city council and planning commission became hostile territory as neighbors turned against neighbors, showing up in force to advocate their views and shout down others’.

“The housing list we released was a mistake, and it really threw a match into dry grass,” says Michael Frank, Novato’s city manager. “The communities reacted very strongly and organized against it very, very quickly. It really pitted certain
elements of our community against other elements.”

The first days of the debate were categorized by “a lot of fear and a lot of anger and a lot of distrust,” he says. Yet nearly a year later, the issue is unresolved and many of the same feelings remain.

Affordable Housing Mandate

As bad as things got, Novato’s dilemma may soon become more of a rule than an exception. Marin has one of the least affordable housing markets in the country, presenting a significant hurdle to blue-collar workers, retirees and first-time home buyers—and many community and philanthropic organizations have made it their mission to help. The Marin Community Foundation, for example, recently committed $10 million to the cause on top of $35 million it has already spent. So although there’s interest in dealing with the issue, the question of what types of housing to build—and where—promises to be a recurring, often inflammatory topic in cities throughout the county. Of Marin’s 11 jurisdictions, only Belvedere now operates under a state-approved housing plan.

“I don’t think any of the supervisors have illusions that they’re not going to start having problems when they look at this,” says Supervisor Judy Arnold, whose district includes Novato. “I think it will be an issue countywide.”

For now, all eyes are on Novato, which today has 27 affordable housing developments holding more than 1,600 units. Eight are set aside for the elderly and 10 are for people with disabilities. About one third are owner occupied, the remainder rented.

California’s affordable housing law dates back to 1969. In the Bay Area, it’s administered by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which every seven years assigns new affordability quotas to cities and counties that they must meet by first developing a detailed plan called a housing element. The current cycle ends in 2014. By then, Novato must build or have in the works 275 additional units of very-low-income housing, a category in which residents cannot make more than 50 percent of a city’s median income. (In Novato, the median income is $99,400 a year for a family of four.) The city must also come up with 171 low-income units for residents making between 51 and 80 percent of the median and another 221 moderate-income units for residents making between 81 and 120 percent of the median.

The debate over how to meet the quotas in Novato involves aspects of city planning and land use that only a policy wonk could love. The issue touches a public nerve when it’s boiled down to a pair of simple questions: Where is the housing going to be? And who is going to live in it?

A Changing City

Since its days as a Marin outpost at the terminus of Highway 101, Novato has matured into an increasingly cosmopolitan city where not everyone can afford a home with a white picket fence. Many longtime residents still cherish the town’s Norman Rockwell roots, but Novato’s demographics are shifting dramatically. The city added 4,300 people between 2000 and 2010, reaching a total of 52,000. In that period, the Asian population grew by about a third (to 3 percent), blacks grew by half (to 6 percent), and Hispanics grew by 75 percent (to 21 percent),  according to census data.

With the changing population mix, some residents suggest that Novato is becoming precisely the sort of place they once left behind and think more affordable housing would only accelerate the trend. On a Facebook page entitled “KEEP NOVATO’S CHARM! No to Additional Affordable Housing!” a Novato mother left this comment in June: “Our family didn’t leave San Francisco and move to Novato 16 years ago just to have ‘low-income housing’ move into our neighborhood yet again … All it did there was bring the crime rate up, Way Up … We’re not moving again … We’re here to stay … NO AFFORDABLE HOUSING IN NOVATO … Enough is enough!!”

And in January, a Novato lawyer commented on a story about the housing issue published by NovatoPatch, a digital news site: “Just say NO to welfare/felon housing. Tell the *&%# city council to cram ‘affordable housing’ down Sacramento’s throat, not ours.”
Some affordable housing proponents suggest that such heated rhetoric is influenced by a topic no one really wants to address: race. “There have been offensive things said, things that I understood to be fairly blatantly racist comments,” says Carolyn Placente, one of only two minorities on the city’s affordable housing committee. “[Things such as] ‘We don’t want another Marin City,’ or ‘We don’t need another Hamilton,’ or ‘We don’t need another Vallejo.’ ” The thinly veiled implication, she says, is that affordable housing will bring more poor blacks and Hispanics to Novato.

What the Numbers Say

The concern that new affordable housing will draw residents from outside the region appears unfounded, at least according to a 2008 county survey that determined that 90 percent of non-senior affordable housing residents had lived elsewhere in Marin prior to moving.

“There’s sort of a myth about bringing in outsiders,” says Marla Fields, vice president of affordable housing advocacy group Sustainable Novato and another member of the housing committee. “It’s easy to imagine the worst-case scenario.”

In January, a gang-related shooting in the Hamilton area, where affordable housing complexes are mixed among single-family homes, exacerbated assumptions that affordable housing and crime are linked—even though one of the suspects was later found to live in market-rate housing in San Marin, one of Novato’s more upscale neighborhoods.

“Any time there are sensational events like that, it does fan the flames of fear,” says Fields. “It’s easy to make associations that aren’t necessarily valid.”

In fact, says City Manager Frank, claims about affordable housing complexes causing crime have little statistical basis. He points out that even though Novato has added 13 affordable housing developments with more than 1,200 units since 2003, crime levels are lower today than they were 20 years ago, falling 10 percent in the last year alone.

And according to Supervisor Arnold, Police Chief Joseph Kreins recently concluded that the city’s affordable housing developments have not been associated with significantly elevated crime rates. “But getting people to believe that is not easy,” she says.

One of the nonbelievers is Harry Lehmann, a local attorney who cofounded Citizens for Balanced Housing, which opposes what he
labels affordable housing “projects.”

“When you segregate people off, when you start treating people like it’s OK to crowd them all together, then you have bad results time and time again,” he says, citing inner-city “hopelessness” in places like Memphis, San Francisco and Detroit—and suggesting that Novato could be next.

Lehmann wants affordable housing to be blended into existing housing stock. State laws demand new construction to satisfy housing quotas, but Lehmann advocates for employing existing housing: in-law units, second units, single-family homes—anything that spreads people around. “We need a real mixture between the people who are in disadvantaged categories and more advantaged categories,” he says. “We just don’t want high-density, low-income housing. We think it’s segregationist, and it doesn’t work.”

Density or Dispersion?

The outburst of opposition to the city’s initial list of 13 affordable housing sites, which were mostly multi-acre parcels, had a notable impact. In response to concerns that the sites were too concentrated—eight were located along a quarter-mile stretch of busy Novato Boulevard between Wilson Avenue and McClay Road and would have contained hundreds of units—city staff developed a lengthier list of nearly 200 sites, including some of the original 13, that are more dispersed throughout the city. The cluster of original sites along Novato Boulevard, an area where no general affordable housing exists today, led to the creation of the Novato Community Alliance.

“This would’ve represented the possibility of a major intensification of the population in that area,” says chairwoman Pam Drew, a math teacher who lives a block from the Novato Square, an aging shopping center listed as one of the sites. “It set off a lot of alarm bells among people.”

Drew helped gather 1,100 signatures on a petition in November calling for the city council to ban 30-unit-per-acre developments, which she believes are too dense for Novato’s small-town character. Lower densities distributed more evenly throughout the community, she argues, would be less likely to contribute to crime and reduce property values. “The future of Novato is surely at stake,” Drew says.

Katie Crecelius, policy director of the affordable housing advocacy group Novato Housing Coalition, is wary of such sweeping sentiments. Well-designed two- and three-story buildings zoned at 20 to 30 units an acre are not only acceptable, she says, but necessary. “If you want to make the argument that there should be no multi-unit housing in Novato,” she says, “the only thing you can start doing is building on the greenbelt.”

An example of 30-unit-per-acre housing that advocates say works well is the prosaically named northern Novato complexes Nova Rows I, II and III, which together hold 126 units. Developed by the Rotary Club of Novato between 1975 and 2003 for seniors making less than half of the median income, they are widely regarded as a success. Even Harry Lehmann deems them “stellar.”

The Next Steps

The incandescent public wrangling of last summer has cooled somewhat, but the emotional and political divides over how to solve Novato’s housing dilemma remain unbridged. City Manager Frank’s committee, formed in October to help defuse the issue by bringing all sides together in a fact-oriented environment, still meets twice monthly (guided by the firm hand of a hired moderator). Its 21 members were selected to represent all points of view, although none live in affordable or senior housing.

By May, the committee is supposed to devise a list of viable affordable housing sites that meets state requirements and addresses citizen concerns. Frank will use that conclusion as the basis for a new draft housing element for the city council to consider. Ideally, the state will certify the plan and Novato will earn some breathing room—at least until a new cycle of state housing mandates begins in 2014.

Despite all the rhetoric still swirling around town, housing advocate Fields maintains hope for a well-reasoned solution that will meet Novato’s needs without sacrificing its charm.

“The opposition groups are good people, and they’re doing what they think is best for the community,” she says. “The truth is they have the same goals that we do.”

Getting Involved

The Novato City Manager’s Working Group on Housing meets April 13 and 27, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., at the Hamilton Community Center, 503 South Palm Drive, Novato.

To dig deeper into the affordable housing issue in Marin County, you can visit a host of websites (pro and con)—such as the City Manager’s Working Group, Novato Community Alliance, and Citizens for Balanced Housing.

You’ll find the direct links for these and more here.