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Rocking The Foundation

Author: Bill Meagher
May, 2009 Issue

NorthBay biz speaks to Marin Community Foundation’s President/CEO Dr. Thomas Peters about the problems—and solutions—of affordable housing projects in Marin.

For most people in Marin, affordable housing is a lot like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything to change it.

The Marin Community Foundation and its president/CEO, Dr. Thomas Peters, Ph.D., would like to alter that, and they really do have their work cut out for them. Despite the fact they’re a $1 billion foundation, they have a long-standing in the community and their board of directors is fairly well connected bunch, getting affordable housing built in Marin County carries the same odds as the 49ers reaching the Super Bowl anytime soon

There are other fine organizations also working to bring affordable housing to Marin. Ecumenical Association for Housing (EAH) has been a beacon, attempting to shine a light for new housing into all corners of the county. Bridge Housing has been a pioneer in building fine projects, while the Marin Work Force Housing Trust is raising money to pursue development. Still, with all these organizations pursuing affordable housing, between 1999 and 2006, less than half of what was required by the state in Marin was actually built. In fact, housing growth of any kind lagged behind job growth.

But the crusade to build affordable housing in Marin is about to take an interesting turn, and the Foundation will wind up in the middle of the fray. Last year, Dr. Peters declared the Foundation’s intention to highlight affordable housing as a priority in terms of its pursuits, having already invested $35 million in the county in various projects. Dr. Peters says, “We want to work with cities and towns, put our heads together and search for constructive and respectful ways to find solutions—and that includes legally enforceable actions.” If that sounds like he’s willing to hire lawyers and become adversarial if that’s what it takes, you haven’t missed a thing.

A little background

The Marin Community Foundation (MCF) was established in 1986, using the assets of Leonard and Beryl Buck, to support a wide range of charitable programs and activities in Marin, including three major projects focused on aging, alcohol and education. First, MCF founded the Marin Institute to lessen the impact of alcohol abuse on the county by improving the physical and social environments. Second, the Buck Institute for Education is a nonprofit organization focused on learning and the practice of teaching. And the Buck Institute for Age Research was established as an independent research center on aging. Additionally, MCF manages more than 300 family funds and distributes grants and loans for a variety of philanthropic causes in Marin as well as across the country and internationally. Though the recent bear market has caused the Foundation’s portfolio to be valued someplace between 15 and 20 percent less than a year ago, MCF, at approximately $1 billion in assets, is the sixth largest foundation of its kind in the country. In 2008, it distributed $60 million to a variety of causes and projects and received $46 million in contributions to new and existing family funds.

Dr. Peters, who comes from a public health background, cut his teeth working first under Mayor Joe Alioto in San Francisco before becoming chief of staff in the 6,000-employee department under Dianne Feinstein. He jumped ship to the County of Marin, where he was in charge of Health and Human Services, before leaving for the Foundation in 1998. He sits on a couch in his office at Hamilton Landing, a converted airplane hangar that’s been home to the Foundation since the building opened in 2002. He’s dressed in a gray print dress shirt and darker gray slacks. His salt-and-pepper hair sits atop a pate with a pronounced forehead. His smile is easy and his nose is forgettable, but it’s his eyes that grab. There’s a weariness to them that suggests it’s been a long week, but the fatigue is shed as he warms to the subject of affordable housing.

This is good, because the fight that he and the Foundation are picking won’t be easy.

To begin, property values in Marin have seemingly only known one direction—decidedly high and moving higher, save for the recent economic crater. With property values high by almost anyone’s standards, making affordable housing pencil out is difficult.

Adding to the challenge will be the lack of property available for development. Long ago, Marin hit what planners refer to as “build out,” a phrase that designates all property is spoken for via previous construction, zoning constrictions or open space designations. It’s certainly possible that existing buildings could be used for affordable housing, either by rehab or tear down and new construction. But in any case, we’re not talking about a fresh canvas and fresh land.

Given Marin’s love and dedication to all things green, it might seem that Joyce Kilmer was in Marin when he wrote those immortal words, “I think I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” In truth, Kilmer was in New York, but the sentiment has deep roots here. The denizens of this county have long valued open space, interaction with a largely unchanged nature and a limit on building anything that might impinge on those baseline values. That same respect for Mother Earth has limited the construction of affordable housing in Marin, and will, to a degree, make Dr. Peters’ mission more difficult.

Finally, we come to the boogeyman of the affordable housing conundrum. There’s little doubt that Marin is the unofficial capital of political correctness for the Western Hemisphere. Jokes that poke fun at minorities find little laughter here. Punch lines that point to infirmities are scorned. Though these values aren’t codified in anything as stringent as say, zoning laws, they nonetheless are enforced with disapproving stares and taut language that makes it abundantly clear such mean-spirited tomfoolery isn’t even remotely tolerated.

This is what makes the community opposition to affordable housing so duplicitous—and what will make the Foundation’s navigation of the issue so difficult. Because political correctness is a religion deeply embraced in Marin, opposition to projects must take on the guise of traffic concerns, parking problems, density worries or any of a dozen other red herrings that sound much better than “not on my block.”

The simple truth is, for many Marin residents, affordable housing isn’t their problem unless a project pops up in their neighborhood. Then, it often becomes a matter of battling the project and finding the best code word.

Would it be any easier for Dr. Peters and company to crack the hardboiled egg that is affordable housing in Marin if residents were honest about their opposition? “I don’t know if it would make that much difference in terms of winning over neighborhoods for projects, but, in some cases, it would be more honest,” Peters admits. “We’re at a crossroads. If we take the left fork, we can be a vibrant and culturally diverse community by building and rehabilitating the housing we need. If we take the right fork and fail to do this, we can turn into a graying, gated community.”

It’s the traffic…and the parking and…

Marin’s Strawberry neighborhood is wedged between Mill Valley and Tiburon. The unincorporated burg is separated from the hillside charm of Mill Valley by Highway 101. On the other side of Strawberry, Tiburon lounges eloquently on the bay and residents bask in the Toney address and astronomical property values that come from the happy geographical happenstance of having San Francisco perched on the other side of the water.

Strawberry found itself in a national spotlight in 2007, when Habitat for Humanity announced its intentions to build four affordable homes as part of a larger development; MCF was a significant investor in the project. Pan Pacific Ocean Inc. owns 16.5 acres of land and would like to donate .85 of it so Habitat could build four homes that would look like two Craftsman-style buildings. The Habitat homes would get the developer off the county hook for providing affordable housing to go with the three McMansions, ranging in size from 6,200 square feet to 7,400 square feet, that would share the rest of the property.

It would have been the first time Habitat had built anything in Marin since the organization left the county in the 1990s (after finding it impossible to get anything built). But the nonprofit organization is facing plenty of neighborhood opposition to the sweat equity homes. Opponents have stated the project will bring more traffic to an area that already has too much. A $100,000 legal fund to fight the project has been commissioned, and the project today remains stalled in the planning stage.

One resident told the San Francisco Chronicle that, while Habitat is known for going into blighted neighborhoods and fixing them up, in Strawberry it would be going into an “enhanced neighborhood and blighting it.” Another told the paper the proposed Habitat homes, “are of a certain type and wouldn’t fit in.” Another quote from the neighborhood? “I’m not against low-cost housing, but this is social engineering.”

When Dr. Peters hears the quotes he just shakes his head. “There’s been a great deal of discussion about the need for affordable housing in Marin,” he says. “There are probably people who are tired of hearing about it, and some of those people may be the ones you’re quoting.”

Part of the MCF game plan is to engage the public, but in a different way. “Right now, we’re in a quiet period. We’ve hired specialists to really dig into the data from the cities, towns and the county from a perspective of performance: Who’s built what?” Peters says, sounding a lot like the policy wonk that recently spent time in Washington, D.C., where he was trying better to understand how the federal response to the economy is likely to affect nonprofits and social services in Marin.

“Another thing we’re looking at is how environmental impact reports [EIRs] impact projects beyond estimating the specific environmental and project costs. We’re trying to gain a larger view of how the EIR fits into a larger picture. There’s a sense by some in the community that we can either respect the environment or build housing. We reject that idea; we think you can do both.”

Another strategy the Foundation is employing is the creation of consensus within communities. “We’re working on developing advocacy for affordable housing in Marin at a grassroots level,” the 64-year-old Peters says, his hands moving in a circle of sorts. “We’re helping people in each town who want to learn, how to ‘talk the talk’ so when it comes to affordable housing projects, we can have an honest dialog.”

A war of words

It turns out, language plays a large role in the fight to build affordable housing. In the last few years, “affordable housing” morphed into “workforce housing.” There were probably studies done or focus groups sampled, but the long-story-short is, too much of the public thought “affordable housing” was a place where unemployed people hung their hats. On the other hand, “workforce housing” is supposed to paint a mental image of health care workers, cops, fire fighters and school teachers all living together in harmony. “We call it simply affordable housing, because that’s what it is. Nearly everyone who lives in affordable housing works for a living, so we don’t need to be redundant. We think people are smart enough to understand that,” Peters says.

Affordable housing has, of course, spawned other language gifts. It created the rallying cry “Not in my backyard,” which became the ubiquitous acronym NIMBY. Then we have “Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody,” or BANANA. The Flat Earth Society has been replaced by “Citizens against virtually everything,” or CAVE. Another popular acronym is NOPE, or “Nowhere on planet Earth.”

If language is in play, so is myth. While Marin prides itself on being educated and sophisticated, it’s surprising how many myths regarding affordable housing refuse to die here in the land of milk and honey. Dr. Peters and company are ready to tackle the myths around issues like density, property values and “fitting in.”

“Actually, density and affordability are two fully independent variables,” Peters explains. “The prices of high-rise condos in Manhattan or San Francisco, where people line up to pay $1 million to $20 million to live in boxes stacked 40 stories high, certainly shows dense isn’t about affordable. And the opposite isn’t always true, either. Look at affordable homes in Hamilton or Point Reyes.”

What about the hue and cry over how affordable housing in Marin will plunge the sacred treasure of property value? “This myth is persistent but false. Extensive follow-up research has been done in scores of communities across the country, comparing single-family home prices before and after affordable housing is built nearby,” Peters says. “There’s simply no correlation or causation to back the claim of plunging housing values—but you have to give them points for persistence.”

And what of the relationship between density and affordable housing fitting into the neighborhood? Dr. Peters’ easy smile is back. “Ah yes, those people. This little sociological ditty is probably at the root [consciously or subconsciously] of many objections. But think about it: There are many perfectly fine people who quite prefer the vitality, neighborliness and environmentally friendly form of living that generally comes with ‘density.’ As to who lives in affordable housing, it’s teachers, home-health workers, postal clerks, writers, food service workers, nursing aides and the like. If these people don’t ‘fit,’ then who does?”

Dr. Peters is on a roll now, and I’m loathe to slow him down. So what about the use of the legal hammer? “We want to partner with the community and work toward viable projects,” he says. “But we’re also prepared to look at legal and policy remedies as well. And we’re committed to using all the tools we need to bring more affordable housing to Marin.”

His easy smile is gone.

Bill Meagher is a regular contributor to NorthBay biz and he pens the Only in Marin column found elsewhere in this publication. He’s lived in Marin for the better part of two decades and, in the spirit of full disclosure, there’s a project under construction up the street that contains affordable units. Bill did not join others in the neighborhood in fighting the project.





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