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IJ Article: Marin’s mandated housing: Much planned, little ‘affordable’

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

By RICHARD HALSTEAD | | Marin Independent Journal January 28, 2023 at 6:23 p.m. Link to article

Marin County and its municipalities have been mandated by the state to allow more than 14,000 new residences by 2031, but less than half the housing will meet the county’s definition of affordable. “The county defines affordable housing as housing that is affordable to households at or below 80% AMI,” said county planner Leelee Thomas, referring to area median income. The AMI for a three-person household in Marin County is $134,240. Marin supervisors raised the issue in July 2021 when they unsuccessfully appealed the county’s assignment to allow 3,569 new dwellings. Of that total, just 1,734, or 48.56%, are required to meet the affordability standard. The Marin municipality assigned the highest percentage of affordable housing in its allocation is Ross. It is required to ensure that 54, or 48.65%, of the mandated 111 dwellings be affordable at or below 80% AMI. When the supervisors discussed the county’s allocation in June 2021, Supervisor Katie Rice said the income distribution failed to accurately reflect the county’s need for workforce housing. She asked that the issue be included in an appeal to the Association of Bay Area Governments of the overall size of the allocation. ABAG is the regional planning agency for the nine counties and 101 cities and towns in the Bay Area. “I do think we should be looking at the mix,” Rice said. When ABAG allocates a certain number of dwellings to a jurisdiction, it specifies how many must be affordable to people in the very-low-income category, who earn less than 50% of AMI; how many in the low-income category, who earn between 50% and 80% of AMI; how many in the moderate-income category, who earn between 80% and 120% of AMI; and how many in the above-moderate category, who earn above 120% of AMI. In its appeal letter, Marin County requested that the number of required moderate-income homes be reduced from 512 to 317, and that the number of above-moderate homes be cut from 1,323 to 230. “Marin County recognizes that more effort needs to be made to increase the supply of affordable housing,” the appeal said, “and the county can rely on existing market forces, as it has in the past, to provide above-moderate-income housing units.” “Increasing the amount of additional above-moderate rate units,” the letter said, “would be contrary to the goals of affirmatively furthering fair housing.” The appeal said Marin County had met and exceeded its allocations for moderate and above-moderate residences in previous planning cycles and was on track to do so again. From 2015 to 2021, 31 moderate-income and 210 above-moderate-income residences were issued building permits in unincorporated Marin, compared to just 83 in the low- and very-low-income categories. Every eight years, in tandem with the ABAG allocations, state law requires counties and municipalities to update the housing elements of their general plans to ensure that their zoning and other policies affecting housing will allow the amount of housing needed. Typically, jurisdictions must increase allowable densities to promote the creation of affordable housing. A statewide projection of future population and households is calculated by the state’s Department of Finance. Then the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, or HCD, adjusts that number for factors such as a “healthy” vacancy rate and to reduce housing overcrowding. Alicia Murillo, a spokeswoman for HCD, said her department decides how much housing to assign to each income category using Census Bureau data for California incomes. HCD also decides how many total residences each region of the state will be responsible for permitting. For the 2023-3031 cycle, ABAG was assigned to plan for 441,176 more residences by 2031. Just over 180,000, or 40.8%, of these residences were mandated to be affordable to people in the low- and very-low-income categories. ABAG then used a complicated formula to determine the income distribution of the homes allocated to each county and municipality in its region. Jurisdictions that have greater proximity to “high opportunity zones” and jobs were allocated more low- and very-low-income dwellings. The state defines high opportunity zones as areas with easy access to jobs, good schools and other amenities. This is the first time ABAG has used high opportunity zones as a factor. ABAG’s objective was to prevent further racial segregation and concentration of poverty. “Maybe a majority of the public agrees we need affordable housing, but what the state is doing is just giving us a mandate for a lot of housing,” said Don Dickenson, president of the Marin County Planning Commission. The Planning Commission, in a 6-1 vote this month, decided not to recommend that the supervisors approve the new housing element. During hearings on the element, Dickenson, a longtime planner in the county, said he doubted that much of the affordable housing called for in the plan would be built over the next eight years. Dickenson cites two projects proceeding in San Rafael under new state housing laws that eliminate local control over projects as examples of what he expects in the future. Dickenson said an eight-story project at 703 Third St. calls for 119 dwellings, and only nine of them would be below market rate. Another project, proposed at the corner of Fourth Street and Grand Avenue, calls for 35 dwellings and includes just three below-market rate units. Mill Valley resident Susan Kirsch, founder of Catalysts for Local Control, said, “It’s simple. Jurisdictions are being asked to build so much moderate- and above-moderate-rate housing because that’s where the profits are.” Kirsch said the affordable housing envisioned will never materialize “unless the state provides subsidies.” Matthew Lewis, a spokesman for California YIMBY, agrees with Kirsch about the need for subsidies but on little else. California YIMBY helped write some of the recent state legislation that has taken control of building decisions away from local jurisdictions in an effort to promote housing creation. Lewis said the argument that the state should mandate the creation of only affordable housing is something he hears all the time. “And it is always by the same people who oppose upzoning and oppose bonding for affordable housing,” Lewis said. “It’s bad faith. They don’t mean it.” Lewis said the definition of affordable housing is housing that a family can afford without spending more than 30% of its income. “The most dishonest thing in housing discourse is people who argue that market rate housing is not affordable,” Lewis said. “That is just false.” “So for someone earning $150,000 a year, 30% of $150,000 is affordable,” Lewis said. “The market can provide much more middle-income housing much faster because it doesn’t require the raising of subsidies.” Lewis said, however, that no amount of upzoning will make low- and very-low-income housing financially feasible to build without subsidies. “If Marin wants a lot more low-income housing,” Lewis said, “they should be talking about bonding to cover the difference in cost. Every county and city in the state has the legal authority to issue bonds to pay for low-income housing.” Veronica Tam, a consultant hired by the county to help prepare its housing element, made the same point about the need for subsidies on Tuesday when supervisors approved the county’s new housing element. “Nobody can build affordable housing without subsidies,” Tam said. At that same meeting, Thomas said that when supervisors review the county budget in March, planners will ask them to consider allocating $25 million over the next five years to help subsidize affordable housing in Marin. “We also need housing that is going to hit that moderate income level, the smaller, multi-unit housing types,” Thomas said. “That is the type of housing that the housing element is trying to encourage, in addition to affordable housing.”

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