Marin’s ‘housing crisis on steroids’ focus of San Rafael forum

Former county supervisor Cynthia Murray kicked off a discussion on housing affordability in Marin with one question.

“Spoiler alert,” said Murray, now CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council. “How do people make ends meet in Marin? They don’t.”

Murray, speaking before the Marin Communications Forum on Monday, said the recent North Bay fires will worsen Marin’s longstanding affordable housing crisis. Robert Eyler, the chief economist of the Marin Economic Forum, and Robin Sternberg, the forum’s CEO, also addressed the housing issue and talked about the impact that housing ownership has on racial equity in Marin.

About 150 people turned out for the morning meeting at the Embassy Suites hotel in San Rafael. The Marin Communications Forum is a group of communications staffers from local agencies, organizations and service providers in Marin County.

“The housing that was lost in the North Bay is equal to all of the housing that has been built in the North Bay in the last few years,” Murray said. “We’ve had a housing crisis for decades. So now with the loss of 6 percent to 7 percent of the housing stock there we now have a housing crisis on steroids. This is a wake-up call. We have an emergency.”

She said the lost housing will likely inflate housing prices and rents in Marin further.

Murray said some 7,000 workers were displaced by the fires and there is no guarantee they will remain in the area.

“We’ve seen a big impact on our health care workers, our teachers, people who work as public employees, our child care workers and preschool teachers,” Murray said.

She said a worker shortage could become a serious issue for Marin, since about 60 percent of the county’s employees commute to work from outside the county daily.

“It is already increasingly hard to fill positions in Marin County,” Murray said.

She offered a number of prescriptions for the problem. She said changes in the California Environmental Quality Act need to be made to prevent its use as a “hammer” to squash project proposals. She said the county of Marin should explore ways to provide more funding for housing construction. She said more attention should be given to mixed-use projects and the creation of junior accessory and accessory units.

But, Murray said, perhaps most importantly, Marin needs “to develop the political will to approve more housing.”

“We have to accept that the only way to reduce the cost of housing is to build more housing,” Murray said. “The prices will always go up if the demand is more than the supply. We have been under-building for decades.”

To build political support for housing, Murray said she and others have formed the Housing Crisis Action Group.

“We have a rapid response team to go out and support projects and write letters and show up at hearings,” she said.

In addition to Murray, the organization’s steering committee consists of Diana Conti, president of the College of Marin Board of Trustees; Linda Jackson, a board member of Sustainable San Rafael and a former Transportation Authority of Marin planner; Robert Pendoley, a member of the Marin Interfaith Council and former Corte Madera planning director; and Kris Organ, former executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 949 that represents most Marin County Civic Center employees.

Sternberg, who became CEO of the Marin Economic Forum in August, said a report released last month showing that Marin is the most racially unequal county in California “set off alarms” for her.

The report produced by Advancement Project California, a Los Angeles-based civil rights organization, rated counties across seven categories. Marin’s poorest performance came in the housing category, where it also ranked first in racial inequity.

For example, 62.6 percent of whites in Marin own their own home, compared with 59.8 percent of Asians, 27.7 percent of African-Americans, 26.4 percent of Latinos and 8.5 percent of Native Americans.

“I feel this is posing the question to all of us: Are we going to continue to accept the status quo? I hope not,” Sternberg said.

Eyler, however, said the aims of housing everyone and increasing equity may be at cross purposes to some degree.

For example, both Eyler and Murray agreed that probably the biggest immediate impact on the housing crisis could be the proliferation of junior accessory and accessory units.

“They are probably the best play in the short term,” Eyler said.

But Eyler cautioned that these units, usually created by turning a spare bedroom into an autonomous living space, would be strictly rentals.

“There are generally benefits to home ownership,” Eyler said. “One of them is that you are building wealth.”

As a result, he said providing more rental housing in Marin would do little to close the gap in racial economic equity.

Eyler said raising education levels is a good way to increase incomes so people can afford more expensive housing and build equity. He cautioned, however, that in today’s world education needs to emphasize the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, if it is be expected to pay economic dividends.

Link to article: Here

Video of the conference: Here

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