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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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Fifth District supervisor Judy Arnold, a former Novato city council member, was on the committee that drafted the AI. Though she advocates preserving open space and believes Marin should zone its housing at lower densities than the state mandate, she says she's seen some dialogue where the notion of preserving community character masks outright racism.

"Some people don't want a whole lot of diversity in this county," she says. "They want seniors if it's their mom or dad, but if it's someone else's mom or dad—well, if they're white, OK, but they don't want to see a lot of wheelchairs or crutches or black or brown people."

Opposition to low-income housing is certainly not unique to Marin, but if the county is serious about caring for its poorer population, low-income housing is a must. And updated housing elements are important for its eventual construction. "Current zoning ordinances impose onerous restrictions on the development of high-density, multifamily housing," according to the AI.

But while every surrounding county has updated the majority of its housing elements, only five of Marin's 12 municipalities have housing elements approved by HCD. And they're running out of time—the current planning period spans 2007-14.

Marin County's housing element was rejected by HCD for, among other things, zoning below the 30 units per acre mandated by the state for low-income housing in metropolitan areas. Last summer, Novato's City Council chose five affordable housing sites, but decided to zone them at the same rejected density. Additionally, two of the sites chosen for rezoning were existing businesses, at least one of which said at the time that it didn't intend to sell.

Mayor Athas acknowledges that the elected body listened to public input on density, but says it simply wanted to accurately represent the neighborhoods it served. "The community has a tolerance. It didn't feel—and council agreed—that that met the needs of our town, which is more like Petaluma than San Rafael," she says, adding that several of the sites seemed particularly viable for senior housing.

But Katie Crecelius, a Novato activist, believes the council's site choice had more to do with pressure from the public than with the parcels' actual potential as low-income housing. "The city council seemed to be mostly interested in sites that would have the least amount of community opposition," she says. "They came up with five sites and each of the sites is unlikely to be viable for a multi-unit housing development of 40 or 50 units."

As Supervisor Arnold points out, affordable housing and affordable senior housing often meet different levels of public opposition. EAH's Murtagh puts it bluntly: "Senior housing is just less threatening."

click to enlarge TOUGH CHOICES Former RN Vivian Terry once went without blood-pressure medication for a month because rent on her Marin City apartment is so high. - RACHEL DOVEY
  • Rachel Dovey
  • TOUGH CHOICES Former RN Vivian Terry once went without blood-pressure medication for a month because rent on her Marin City apartment is so high.

But at least one developer of senior housing was caught in the Novato conflagration. Eden Housing is currently building 60-plus very-low income senior units on Diablo Avenue in Novato, and project developer Faye Blackman remembers the initially smooth process of working with the design review board becoming rough in 2011, after community debate over the housing element ignited any issue related to affordable housing.

Before 2011, she says, "there were some vocal opponents, but it was nothing like it ended up becoming, where there was this crazy outcry against affordable housing that our project got dragged into. If that outcry had happened while we were trying to get approved, we might not have gotten approved."

While housing debates rage, wait lists stay full. And though most Marin seniors aren't becoming homeless, many are paying rents and mortgages far beyond their means. So what's getting cut?

For Vivian Terry, it's food.

Even seated in a folding chair at the Margarita C. Johnson Senior Center, Vivian Terry has perfect posture. The 62-year-old former RN folds her hands and enunciates each syllable as she speaks—evidence of years singing mezzo-soprano in her church choir.

Faith plays an important role in Terry's life, not just for worship and community, but also for basic survival. Due to a life-altering stroke, she now lives on a combination of income from Social Security and part-time maintenance work for her Marin City apartment complex. And her market-rate rent of over $1,000 a month is a major problem.

"I've tried to cut down on my expenses so I can pay most of what I need to with disability [benefits]," she says. "But there are medications and food that sometimes have to go wanting."

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