By Nadine Ono.
Marin County took a big step toward providing and preserving more affordable housing for its residents when the Board of Supervisors approved an additional $1 million contribution to its Affordable Housing Trust Fund in its 2016-2017 budget.
This measure matters significantly in Marin County, one of the more expensive places to live in California, with a median single-family home costing $1 million and the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment at $2,500.
“Marin has been in a position that the state has been in for many years in that we have a serious housing crisis and shortage of housing,” said LeeLee Thomas, interim planning manager for the County of MarinCommunity Development Agency.
The contribution into the housing trust will focus on increasing the supply of affordable family housing through preservation and the development of new family housing. Thomas added that the biggest employers in the county include the healthcare industry, San Quentin State Prison and the county government.
“Most of our workers–over 60 percent of them–commute from outside the county and are commuting into lower paid jobs and meanwhile, we’re exporting higher paid workers into the City [San Francisco],” said Thomas. “So we have a significant housing-jobs imbalance that I think is happening on the state level, but in Marin it is even more exaggerated.”
The county also faces major region-specific challenges that the make housing costs higher, according to Thomas.
“We are in the coastal zone, so any properties that are in the coastal zone have additional regulations. The majority of our land–over 80 percent–is preserved as open space through federal, state and local policies, or it is agriculture land, so there are a lot of constraints on development.”
That’s why the trust fund is focused on preserving existing housing. With the partnership of the Marin Community Foundation, the trust recently purchased two properties, both of which had a long-time owners who kept rents low. If the properties were to be sold on the open market, the new owners would have changed the rents to market rate, displacing most of the moderate- to low-income tenants including two on Section 8. The purchase of the properties preserved eight affordable units in Stinson Beach and 27 affordable units in Fairfax.
Preserving existing housing is both time and cost effective, especially in a location such as Marin County.
“It’s just more immediate,” said Thomas. “There are limited opportunities to develop in the county. It’s costly and the approval process tends to be pretty lengthy and onerous.” And, by doing this, Marin County’s is preventing its moderate- to low-income residents from being priced out of the market.
A priority goal of the California Economic Summit’s Roadmap to Shared Prosperity is sharing innovative strategies such as Marin County’s that aim to maintain and increase housing stock at all levels.
Acknowledging the issue of local affordable housing early on, Marin County adopted its inclusionary policy and housing trust in 1980. The trust is funded by in-lieu fees and impact fees as well as an annual contribution from the general fund. But housing costs continue to climb, so in addition to property acquisition and development, the county is considering additional measures to ease the housing crunch.
The county is investigating how to work with landlords to accept more Section 8 vouchers by providing incentives such as vacancy protections, in which the housing authority cover the rent between Section 8 vacancies. The county is also looking into a “source of income” ordinance, which will prevent landlords from discriminating against Section 8 tenants.
According to Thomas, Marin County continues to look for ways to ease the affordable housing crisis, “It’s a long-term problem to solve and prioritizing it is a good first start.” She added, “The board is putting attention to it, some money into it and we’re’ putting resources into it. But it’s a statewide and a larger problem that we’re not going to solve in a matter of months.”