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Bill preserving Marin’s suburban status sparks affordable housing debate

The state Legislature on Thursday approved a bill by Assemblyman Marc Levine that extends until 2028 special treatment for Marin County, San Rafael and Novato when it comes to meeting state requirements for zoning for affordable housing.

Adoption of the bill was considered a foregone conclusion because it was an item tied to passage of the state budget.

“It’s not a surprise,” said Diane Luther, advocacy manager for EAH Housing, an affordable housing developer based in San Rafael. “It feels like it was already decided even before it became public.”

In 2014, Levine succeeded in getting a law passed that for the purposes of state housing law changed the designation of Marin County, San Rafael and Novato from metropolitan to suburban until 2023.

The change was key, because one way for jurisdictions to demonstrate they are meeting a state requirement for zoning for low- and very-low-income housing is to use what is known as the state’s “default” density number. For metropolitan jurisdictions, the default density is 30 units per acre. For suburban jurisdictions, the default density is 20 units per acre. Affordable housing developers say low-income housing projects need more than 20 units per acre in order to be economically viable.

Now with passage of SB 106, Levine has extended Marin’s suburban designation until 2028.

“The suburban designation gives cities and counties more flexibility to zone land suitable for affordable housing that fits the suburban development of Marin,” Levine said in statement.

In 2014, Levine convinced some affordable housing developers, such as EAH Housing, to support the initial change by convincing them that something had to be done to head off a wildfire of opposition to multifamily housing development that was sweeping the county at the time.

Affordable housing developers and advocates this time around, however, were uniform in their opposition to the extension. They noted that the original bill had called for an evaluation of the designation change to be conducted in 2019 and 2023 to determine if it was succeeding in stimulating affordable housing development.

“In the last three years, we’ve seen an explosion of tents under freeways all over the Bay Area; it’s an unbelievable housing crisis,” said Mary Murtagh, EAH Housing’s chief executive.

“It’s the logical result of the fact that we’ve been under-building housing for the last 20 years at least,” she said. “It doesn’t seem fair for Marin not to be lifting the load along with everybody else.”

Murtagh said that according to Beacon Economics, between 2005 and 2015 there were 21.5 housing permits filed for every 100 new residents in the state.

“Which puts us second to last in the United States behind Alaska,” she said.

Anya Lawler, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, said,

“It’s disappointing to see this deeply flawed policy move forward, especially as part of a larger budget deal that included no new resources to address the state’s housing crisis. With the crisis verging on catastrophe for lower-income Californians, the Legislature just made it harder to produce critically needed affordable units in one of the most expensive and exclusionary counties in the state.”

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