A new disclosure form given to Marin homebuyers is the latest fault line in a Richter-topping controversy over regional zoning laws and affordable housing.
The Marin Association of Realtors' form informs potential homebuyers of usual disclosures such as pesticide-spraying, potential fire hazards and wastewater regulations. But on page 13, in a new clause adopted in May, it also addresses nearby housing developments.
Fair-housing advocates worry that adding affordable housing to a list of mostly negative disclosures, including the presence of lead paint and any prior death on the property, could have NIMBY implications.
"From time to time, the county, city and towns of Marin identify areas of Marin for possible developments," it reads. "Real estate brokers and their agents are not responsible for investigating or identifying properties which may be rezoned or affected by future developments."
It's hardly inflammatory language, but the environment into which it slips is very much heated.
The document was updated around the same time the Marin Association of Realtors announced its opposition to One Bay Area, an ambitious, controversial effort by regional planning hub the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) to encourage smart growth. As the Bohemian has previously reported, One Bay Area was motivated by SB 375, California's statewide senate bill that discourages commuting and sets emission reduction goals through infill and city-centered growth. According to studies funded by foundations in Napa and Marin, the idyllic, open-space-worshipping North Bay is in dire need of such a push: 60 percent of Marin workers and 30 percent Napa workers commute in daily from Sonoma, Solano, Alameda and other places where the cost of housing isn't nearly as high.
But the plan—which would zone for 2,292 new units, including low-income housing, between 2014 and 2022—has been lividly debated in Marin. Some groups, like Citizen Marin, voice fears about high-rises and big-development interests that could radically alter the parks and oak-lined hiking trails residents now enjoy. Other groups have voiced dissent in more radical ways; Corte Madera voted to withdraw from ABAG altogether in 2012, and earlier this year another citizen group began collecting signatures to recall county supervisor Susan Adams.
Though it is the wealthiest county in California, Marin has been notoriously reluctant to zone for low-income housing in the past, spurring at least one lawsuit. Novato's 2011 attempt to update its housing element was an almost frenzied affair, in which townspeople—most of them, like Marin's 80 percent majority, white—packed the meeting hall, many lambasting the gang-banging, drug-using, sex-offending others that would supposedly come with their rent-controlled homes. Speakers pushed to segregate these perceived projects across the freeway, away from homeowners and their children—one going so far as to suggest that housing for "them" should be kept safely "in the desert somewhere."
The five councilwomen eventually zoned at a lower number than they were supposed to in an effort to "push back" against ABAG, and even zoned land with existing businesses on it, one of which said publicly that it did not intend to sell.
It's in this charged political climate—which has divided defenders of green open-space from advocates for green growth and sparked protests with signs reading "End Apartheid in Marin"—that a simple clause like the one released by the Marin Association of Realtors becomes a big deal.
"This is very much an issue that we are concerned with," says Caroline Peattie, executive director of Fair Housing of Marin. "A disclosure means something negative is involved. You disclose that there's lead paint. When you disclose a potential affordable housing site, you're saying it's bad."
Peattie says Fair Housing of Marin is less worried with the new disclosure and more concerned with a prior legal form drafted by Bradley Real Estate, which specifically cites affordable housing and proposed zoning sites.
Robert Bradley, CEO of Bradley Real Estate, believes the company had a legal responsibility to disclose what he calls a massive rezoning of the county.
"A disclosure is anything that will have a material effect on the desirability of the property," he says, adding that a large development in a neighborhood of single-family homes could do just that. He also voices concern about how a below-market-rate property could affect an area where schools and city resources are shared, but inhabitants aren't paying property taxes.
His wife, Melissa, echoes his statements, citing a slogan she's heard repeatedly in her 20-year real estate career: "When in doubt, disclose." She says she's surprised that the larger Marin Association of Realtors has not previously made zoning changes an issue of disclosure.
"We count on our board for updates on how things are going and what new info we need to disclose," she writes in an email.
Edward Segal, CEO of the association, said there was no connection between the Bradley document and his association's disclosure, which was voted on by a task force within the organization. He would not state who was on the task force.
"It was just for the sake of being current with all the talk and public discussion and debate," he says, denying that the association is somehow taking a political stance on the explosive issue.
Michael Allen, a civil rights attorney working with Marin Fair Housing, says that no matter the intent of the disclosures, they could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He explains it cyclically: perception that affordable housing will lower property values could make a neighborhood less desirable to buyers and that, in turn, could lower property values.
"Each of them has the effect of suggesting there's something wrong with affordable housing," he says. "The effect in the real world is going to be negative on affordable housing and negative on integration in Marin."
Allen says he doesn't see a precedent for this kind of notice in California real estate disclosure law. A perusal of the law reveals many examples—asbestos, flooding, radon gas—that are, in fact, negative. According to Bradley, his notice is an attempt to get information out into an atmosphere that has been politicized to the point where simple facts are lost.
"It's like there's a Fox News and an MSNBC, but no CNN," he says of the cataclysmic debate.
In the meantime, most of the county's workforce commutes in, clogged freeways spew emissions, and the state's wealthiest county remains economically and racially segregated—with few places for its workers to live.