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Marin County struggles to get its affordable house in order

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Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Tuesday that could set the stage for the future of affordable housing in Marin County—a hot-button issue that has unfolded in recent months as the state reviews a county master plan whose housing provisions have roiled Marin in recent months.

"Affordable housing" is an oxymoron in Marin County. Rents have gone up by 13 percent on average in recent years, according to the master plan, as demand for housing drifts northward from the sky-high rental scene in San Francisco to the suburban enclaves over the bridge. Between 2011 and 2012 the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Marin jumped from $1,777 to $2,014.

"Suburban" is the key word: The bill signed by Brown renders Marin a suburban area—no longer officially part of the greater urban sprawl of San Francisco.

The new designation translates into a mandate for fewer affordable housing units than if the urban tag had remained.

Meanwhile, the county master plan, now being reviewed by the state, includes suggestions to deal with Marin's rents, and includes the possibility of "rent control," two words no landlord ever wants to hear.

The rent spike means low- and middle-income workers in Marin are having a tough time in their search for an affordable place to live close to the job. Not helping matters: A small but vocal cohort of county residents has steered the debate into rough and ugly waters.

"One of thing that's become very apparent in the past few years is that there is such a fear of affordable housing," says Caroline Peattie, executive director of Fair Housing of Marin. "There are some very vocal people in the community who have done quite an amazing job of fear-mongering."

Peattie cites a barrage of online comments that followed stories in the Marin Independent-Journal about affordable housing—"anonymous, hateful stuff"—as well as comments made in public forums about the master plan.

Proponents share some of the burden of excessive biliousness she says, noting that the housing squabble has been reduced to two raw sides of red meat: "People who are anti-affordable housing are labeled 'racists,' and people who are for affordable housing are all about 'social engineering.'"

The bill signed by Brown this week was sponsored by Marin state Assemblyman Marc Levine and supported by the Marin County Board of Supervisors.

The former "urban" designation came via the U.S. Census Bureau, which sets a so-called density formula for affordable housing to which the county must abide. Sonoma County, a suburban area, must create 20 units of affordable housing for every acre that's developed. In rural areas, it's 15 units per acre. For urban areas, it's 30.

Because of the census designation, "we have the 30-unit acre default," says Leelee Thomas, principal planner in the Marin County Community Development Agency. "The big concern with the community is that it's not consistent with [its] more suburban character."

"I don't think that most of Marin sees itself as an urban community," says Peattie, citing the county's rampant wealth and pale skin tones.

The county is 3 percent black and about 16 percent Latino, she notes—and many residents, she says are more concerned about the "sense of privilege that we have in Marin County: One family where each parent has a car, the kids have a car."

She suggests those residents spend more time grappling with the needs of other socio-economic groups in their midst.

"I see how really whipped up the emotions get," says Peattie, "where people seem to feel that the actual fabric of their existence is being threatened by the possibility of affordable housing in their neighborhood."

"There's not a lot of middle ground," she adds, noting that former Marin supervisor Susan Adams was "booed out of office" over her support for affordable housing. Another, Judith Arnold, "almost lost her seat" for the same thing.

Given the jobs boom in San Francisco, says Thomas, "Marin is being looked at as a more affordable place to live than in the City," she says.

The county's master plan, she stresses, offers recommendations, not mandates, on the way forward.

The master plan examined housing needs—and the various constraints, challenges and barriers to affordable housing, says Thomas. "There's no mandate for rent control," she says. "But we will consider it and look at it. The board has not weighed in on it."

The plan is being reviewed by the state Housing and Community Development Agency. The county Planning Commission will next have a look, and then the Board of Supervisors will vote on it. Then the plan heads back to the state for certification, Thomas says.

Peattie notes that the suburban designation will create an affordable-housing problem all its own: "The fewer units you build, the more difficult it is to manage economically," she says. "It's almost impossible to build affordable housing when you are building fewer and fewer units."

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