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Angry Grousing About Housing

Yelling, bickering, a costly recall—what the hell is going on in Marin?



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If this number were some kind of omniscient data set, all would be well and good. But it's not. Spurred by Mark Luce, the president of ABAG who called the process a "black box" when I interviewed him last summer, and Bob Ravasio, council member of Corte Madera and a member of ABAG who told me "If you find out how the RHNA works, let me know," I drove to Oakland to visit ABAG. There, I sat in an office and looked over at least 10 sheets of paper as planning director Hing Wong explained the "formula" used to calculate RHNA. It took an hour. And it's wasn't a formula, really—it was determined by months and months of meetings, in which government officials, fair-housing lawyers, developers and transit workers decide the "fair share" of how much each region should get.

But though ABAG has a reputation for strong-arming development onto unwilling towns, the RHNA process can be arbitrary in unexpected and troubling ways.

Because housing, particularly affordable housing, has historically been so unpopular in Marin, elected officials can push back against this fair-share mentality. And thus, despite its high in-commuting numbers, parts of Marin received unusually low numbers in the most recent cycle, compared to recent years.

As we reported last year, Wong told me that in Novato, this was at least partly because "a councilwoman wanted very low numbers."

The lack of good, unbiased data means that vast conspiracies have sprung up in which Marin's lack of affordable housing and clogged freeways aren't really problems—they're considered smokescreens for developers who just want to make a buck.

"Everyone says 'You're in the pocket of the developers,'" affordable-housing advocate Lynne Wasley says. "I've never been given a dime."

Op-eds are written in which supervisors, characterized as "well-to-do progressives," and developers seem to be in cahoots. And during the Marinwood meeting, Bradley and several others alluded to the study conducted by Marin County for HUD—which found that minorities and multifamily units had been clustered due to discriminatory zoning—as an affirmative action document, implying that it was a tool to bring in "underrepresented minorities [from] outside Marin County."

And so a strange and sour attitude comes into play at public meetings, which tend to be overwhelmingly middle-class and white. It's an attitude that doubts the very existence of low-income workers and residents in Marin—an attitude that might explain something like the farcical post on Nestel's

"Wanted" it reads. "Gay Eskimos for Marinwood Village Affordable Housing Complex."

At Novato's affordable housing meetings, which I covered back in 2010, it took the form of comments like "I heard that we recruited people from Richmond to come here tonight to fulfill our need for affordable housing" and "All of these people who need a place to live, where are they now?"

And the answer mirrors this systemic issue. They're not at evening Marin meetings, because though they work in Marin, they don't live there.

Or else, as a troubling press conference recently implied, they're too scared to come.

At a very different meeting than the ones described above, a group of fair-housing advocates and grass roots organizers came together in the Marin Civic Center garden on a Tuesday morning. They spoke quietly, waited their turn to speak and punctuated each comment with well-mannered applause. No one hissed, booed or called the police.

And the tenor of the gathering felt like a PTSD support group.

John Young, leader of Marin Grassroots, recalled talking to a colleague during a public meeting—before someone called the sheriff and asked that he be kicked out. A black man who describes himself as a big guy, Young said he felt afraid.

VOICES SILENCED John Young says he's had people call the sheriff's department and ask that they kick him out of public meetings.
  • VOICES SILENCED John Young says he's had people call the sheriff's department and ask that they kick him out of public meetings.

"This was a room full of 200-plus European Americans," he says.

An Asian-American man shares a similar experience. He recalls getting up to speak in favor of affordable housing and being heckled with the words: "You don't belong here." Wasley, who was in attendance, says she hasn't been to a public meeting in Novato in two years, after being booed and hissed in numerous town halls. She was even hissed at the grocery store wearing a sticker in favor of affordable housing, she says.

And then Gail Theller, a spokesperson for Community Action Marin, says something that does not bode well for the future of public discourse in Marin.

"The public areas in which these discussions are taking place have gotten to be so threatening that I'm unable to organize a group of people who are low-income to come," she says.

The group announced that it was going to write a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown about the fact that all sides of Marin's housing debate are not being heard. But in the meantime, meetings take place in suburbs like the one described at the beginning of this piece, where homes sell for an average of $650,000 a pop and beautiful community halls are packed with angry people, holding signs and shouting about apartment buildings.

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