Click photo to enlarge
Dick Spotswood writes a weekly column on local politics for the Marin Independent... (Robert Tong)
There is a right way to create affordable and workforce housing in Marin and a wrong way.
Elected officials, planners and concerned Marinites should look at the soon-to-be built Mount Burdell Apartments in Novato to learn how to go about building so-called affordable housing without tearing the community apart.
Sponsored by the independent Greater San Francisco chapter of Habitat for Humanity, Mount Burdell Apartments will soon provide 10 affordable owner-occupied condominiums. While committed to building housing for those historically unable to afford home ownership, Habitat's business model doesn't demand high density. It is not opposed to big-scale development, it just isn't required to accomplish its mission.
During the recent Great Recession, the local Habitat had even purchased single-family Marin homes in foreclosure. Novato, hard hit by underwater homes, was a great place to act. It was the ideal method to simultaneously help the community by stabilizing property values while enabling lower income folks to become property owners.
Habitat's approach should enlighten both those Marinites who have reservations about adding affordable housing to their communities as well as nonprofits and regional planners steadfast in the belief that the only way to accomplish the task is with community-destroying high-density housing.
Mount Burdell Apartments, whose construction is slated to start in mid-September, is right-sited. The well-designed Fourth Street and Olive Avenue condos are just a block from downtown Novato. They are surrounded on three sides by longstanding apartments of similar density. Across Fourth are small single family homes compatible with the neighborhood's mixed single family home-apartment makeup. Its new residents will undoubtedly be employed all over the Bay Area.
Will they use public transit? Likely no more than other central Novato residents. It just depends on where they find acceptable employment.
It's refreshing that Habitat, while encouraging transit proximity, doesn't guilt-trip the public into falsely believing that this project will somehow save the environment.
That's not what it's about. Its goal is simple: assist working families into home ownership. Habitat doesn't try to bamboozle the public, gullible county supervisors and planners with a lot of politically correct but misleading rhetoric.
Mount Burdell Apartments enjoys strong community support. A unanimous Novato City Council loaned the project $427,438 to purchase the land. Taxpayers ultimately will be paid back. Habitat will provided mortgage assistance for resident families earning between $41,200 and $82,400 annually.
The legitimate purpose of facilitating affordable housing is to encourage a mix typical of classic American small towns with a range of incomes, occupations, ethnicities and lifestyles.
While adding rental homes and apartments to that combination is desirable, there's something particularly appropriate at Mount Burdell Apartments, where new residents will become property owners. That will give them a long-term stake in Novato's future.
Habitat does something unique that encourages an ownership ethic. Those wishing to buy the units must contribute 500 hours of hand-on work during the construction phase. Prospective residents not willing to devote three months of their lives toward making the project a success need not apply. Anyone putting in that effort will likely be a good future neighbor.
For those looking for a model of affordable housing that's equitable for the entire community, look no further than Mount Burdell Apartments.
Habitat's process will not work out so well for those big-time real estate developers who hide behind high density to create massive profit centers for themselves and their allies. Conversely, it is a fine model for potential working-class homeowners.
It's also a positive move for all North Marin residents who'll have the satisfaction of helping to create true workforce housing that's compatible with existing neighborhoods.
Columnist Dick Spotswood of Mill Valley shares his views on local politics every Sunday and Wednesday in the IJ. His email is