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For Richer or for Poorer? 

In wealthy Marin, opposition to low-income housing is high—and so are the numbers of the county's poor, aged and disabled who need it most

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Few senior developments listed in the county roster have any openings at all. None are available in the subsidized complexes provided by the county housing authority, which, as of early 2012, had a cumulative wait list approximately 2,000 strong. Wait lists often range several years and, according to a 2011 county inventory, at least 18 complexes accepting seniors have closed them entirely. For the Maria Freitas Senior Housing in San Rafael, this closure means the complex can't guarantee even one spot within the next five years.

click to enlarge SAFE AT HOME With no available options, Kathleen Burkland lived in a homeless shelter before finally moving up the wait list for a low-income studio apartment in Novato. - GABE MELINE
  • Gabe Meline
  • SAFE AT HOME With no available options, Kathleen Burkland lived in a homeless shelter before finally moving up the wait list for a low-income studio apartment in Novato.

Burkland attests to the damning power of wait lists. As her arthritis worsened, full-time work in an emotionally and physically draining job became impossible. After her partner's death in 2008, she moved in with her daughter in Novato. Living primarily on Social Security Disability by then, she couldn't afford a market-rate apartment. Being over 55 and disabled, she could have qualified for a subsidized studio or one-bedroom. But she couldn't find one to rent, and her daughter eventually moved.

"All the senior and disabled places were filled, and there was something like a two-year waiting list," she recalls.

She could have stretched her income further if she wasn't paying off her car, but knowing how precarious her situation was, she held on to it. "I didn't want to lose my car, because, especially if you're homeless, your car means so much to you," she says.

Without a place to live, she entered the shelter.

Mental illness, PTSD, alcohol and drug abuse play a role in Marin's older transient community, as in any other. Burkland acknowledges this, but also says she was surprised by how many "normal" people she's met in the shelter system. "There are more people homeless that you would call your neighbors than just 'those lazy druggies and alcoholics,'" she says.

Now an advocate for affordable housing herself, Burkland points to the region's larger, systemic issues when speaking about her situation.

"Marin is just . . . " She pauses. "It supports the people who have money."

On the most basic level, Marin's shortage of low-income housing and its expensive market-rate units can both be tied to the county's lack of developable land.

But that's not the whole story.

A report completed by the county for HUD—the Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice, or AI—states: "Traditionally the County resisted urban sprawl and preserved open space, which has helped push housing prices higher since few subdivisions have been built in the area since 1930." Between agriculture, parks and open space, the document estimates that only 16 percent of the county's total mass is suitable for building, mostly spanning the 101 corridor, and 11 percent has already been developed.

And while parts of Marin have tried to remain forest-encircled hamlets, the county's location across the Golden Gate from San Francisco has given it something of an identity crisis. Though towns like Novato, Ross and Corte Madera look suburban, Marin is considered "metropolitan" by the state department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), meaning it's supposed to zone land for multi-family housing at a higher density than counties like Sonoma or Napa. So when it comes time to update their cities' housing elements—part of the general plan that zones land for population growth—local officials say they're often frustrated. As Novato mayor Denise Athas puts it, "We throw up our hands and go, 'Where?'"

This process is governed by state Housing Element Law, enacted in 1969, which recognizes that although development generally belongs to the private market, land-use and zoning patterns can get in its way. The law includes Code § 65589.5, an "Anti-NIMBY Statute," and instructs local governments to create housing opportunities for all economic segments of the community.

But that doesn't always happen. In 1998, Marin Family Action filed a lawsuit against Corte Madera, charging that its housing element didn't adequately plan for low-income units.

"Opposition to development goes way back here," says Mary Murtagh, who since 1986 has served as executive director of EAH Housing, a low-income housing development and management nonprofit founded in Marin. Murtagh likens the county's slow-growth tendencies and desire to preserve small-town character with other regions across the Bay Area. But the nonprofit director articulates another layer of opposition to affordable housing: fear of who might come with it.

"In general, Americans think poverty is a character flaw," she says.

City hall dialogue in Novato between 2010-11 uncovered virulent assumptions about the type of person who might apply to rent low-income housing. As the city tried to update its housing element, public comment exploded with characterizations of low-income residents as criminals, gang members, sex offenders and "high-maintenance individuals" who would decimate police resources and shuffle under-performing students into public schools. Existing affordable complexes were said to be "riddled with meth dealers and coke dealers and weed and everything else," ghettoizing a town that "used to be a nice place to live." (Meanwhile, statistics from 2010 show that violent crime was roughly half of what it was in the early 1990s.) One woman concluded that, while cities risk litigation by failing to update their housing elements, she "would rather see the lawsuit."

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