Where does our affordable housing go?

Often, people complain that there isn’t enough affordable housing being built in Marin and blame the developer. Often, however, it’s neighbor concerns – often quite reasonable – that drive up the cost of development.

Two years ago, a developer filed to build 10 townhomes on G Street in San Rafael’s West End neighborhood. That’s the maximum allowed density, and it included 2 affordable units to meet the 20 percent affordability requirement.

However, neighbors had some quite justifiable concerns. The street is a cut-through for drivers heading to or from Second and so is extremely busy and more homes would mean more cars and so more traffic. It’s a neighborhood of detached homes, and townhomes would be a departure from that. The lack of side yards will disrupt the feel of the neighborhood. The building architecture looked too tall in the area. There were also concerns about a heritage oak tree.

Each of these concerns were addressed in turn. The architecture was modified a number of times and utilities were reconfigured “at considerable expense,” according to testimony at a recent city meeting. Two units were cut to address density concerns, which eliminated one affordable unit. The developer will spend $250,000 to save the heritage oak.

Each of these changes makes sense to neighbors and so helps preserve the feel of the neighborhood. Even the oak tree, worth the price of a new home, was worth it. However, these changes cost San Rafael that affordable housing unit and the added expenses will likely inflate the cost of the market-rate homes.

It’s often believed developers are made of money, but they are businesses that aim to make a profit. Large developers can throw their net wide and absorb this sort of unforeseen cost on a few projects. Small ones, however, need consistency and a sure return on the time and money it takes to shepherd a proposal through the bureaucracy. This developer is right to work with neighbors to ensure the project doesn’t have adverse effects on West End, but it is also a lesson in why building for-profit affordable housing in Marin is so tough and rare.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

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