Clockwise from top left. State Sen. Mike McGuire, Dick Spotswood, State Assemblyman Marc Levine, Novato Councilmember Pat Eklund and advocate Susan Kirsch.
Other than the relentless pandemic that has, rightfully so, captured just about all of our attention since March 2020, the housing crisis has dominated conversation in the Bay Area and beyond in recent years.
A panel this week on that subject – hosted by the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers (CO$T), moderated by former Mill Valley Mayor and longtime Marin IJ columnist Dick Spotswood and featuring State Senator Mike McGuire, State Assemblyman Marc Levine, Novato City Councilmember Pat Eklund and Susan Kirsch, an advocate for local control of housing development – made it clear that the landscape has shifted in recent months on the housing front.
That shift is a far cry from earlier housing cycles, when housing opponents turned out in droves and successfully lowered targets for new housing development. The recent shift is being driven by myriad factors, but one in particular: legislation, namely the passage of SB 9, which allows two-unit buildings on lots that for generations have been reserved exclusively for single-family homes. “By allowing two units per parcel and permitting property owners to subdivide their lots, the law would increase density to as many as four units on a single-family plot,” writes California-based New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty, who participated in a riveting Q&A at the Outdoor Art Club on the subject earlier this year.
Though its potential in Mill Valley remains unknown, SB9 means that, starting on January 1, the total number of units on a single lot can be as high as four. The criteria for eligible homes under SB9 is lengthy, and notably excludes those in environmentally-sensitive areas and in historic districts, as well as those that are subject to deed restrictions or rent control, or that have been occupied by a tenant in the last three years. To split a lot, neither of the parcels can be smaller than 1,200 square feet, and the homeowner must sign an affidavit they will remain in the house for the subsequent three years — designed as a guardrail against potential speculation.
But even a relatively small number of SB9 takers could make a difference in Mill Valley, which faces an Association of Bay Area Governments’ Regional Housing Needs Allocation that requires the City to zone and plan for – but necessarily build – an eye-popping 865 units in the 2023-2031 cycle, a massive uptick from 129 units in the 2014-2022 cycle. The City appealed that allocation and, like just about every municipality that filed an appeal, was rejected.
Those requirements have added a level of urgency for community leaders, particularly around the prospect of working with EAH Housing to study the feasibility of building affordable housing at 1 Hamilton Drive and taking a significant step toward creating more affordable living situations in town, particularly for the large number of people who work in Mill Valley but cannot afford to live here.
“We have to do everything we can now to get this done,” former Mayor Clifford Waldeck said. “If we don’t approve this project, it’s likely that we’ll fall well short of our RHNA numbers. And if Mill Valley is not meeting its RHNA numbers, it could lose its local control and discretion and it might get 3-4 times the number of homes on that site. We should embrace the process and make it the best project we can possibly have, and then go on Miller Avenue and Boyle Park and so on.”
On. Nov. 10, the City of Mill Valley continues its process to create a new Housing Element for years 2023-2031, a long-term, state-mandated deep dive into the future of housing in our community. The first session dug into demographics, housing needs and general requirements for the Housing Element Update. The Nov. 10th workshop sinks its teeth into creating an inventory of sites that are adequately zoned or planned to be zoned to accommodate housing. In doing so, it must also “involve the public from all economic segments of the community” and “review ordinances, identify outdated policies or modify codes that inhibit housing supply, affordability and choice.”
McGuire kicked off the discussion this week by succinctly laying out the tangible, traffic-inducing impact of Marin’s need to create more housing opportunities.
“Sixty percent of our workforce drives into Marin – that is just not sustainable,” he said. “Every community needs to see some change if we’re going to address this crisis. We need 1.5 million more units statewide. If there are concerns about SB9 and SB10, I would say buckle up.”
Levine, who voted against SB9, said he was concerned that the legislation’s potential for “uneven application” could “generate far more housing than its potential,” thus burdening or altering whole other communities while some “would never get touched by it.”
Eklund emphasized her belief that state legislation “is hampering our ability to create affordable housing,” and that local governments alone were “best to determine what is best for the communities.” Eklund also noted how difficult and time consuming it is for local planners to inject these massive legislative shifts into municipal codes, particularly given the quick turnaround between Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signing of SB9 on Sept. 16 and it going into effect on January 1, 2022.
“And where is the information that supports the idea that more housing will lower cost of housing?” Eklund asked.
McGuire suggested that the answer to the debate about whether or not new housing construction would address the affordability gap had already been answered in many ways by the construction of 16,000 accessory dwelling units since 2019. He also said that a city council or board of supervisors could choose to deed restrict subdivided one or all four units on a parcel.
Kirsch called the legislation “a matter of expediency” that would only benefit “developers and investors and hedge funds” with housing trending toward “being bought up by corporations. It’s as if the developers have been given the keys to our communities.” Kirsch said opponents of SB9 plan to imminently pursue a ballot initiative, powered by at least one million signatures, to overturn SB9 on the November 2022 ballot.
There was plenty of discussion about the new housing’s impact on already overburdened infrastructure like roads, and, of course, water amidst an extreme drought emergency. But McGuire reminded attendees that “we can’t be a county talking about the impact of climate change and not talk about housing – the lack of housing impacts climate change, and we have heard loud and clear that we cannot build in wildfire zones.”