Op-Ed: Bob Brown is "an affordable housing activist" and not right for Novato

There are at least two sides to the interim appointment of Bob Brown as Interim Community Development Director. Here, a 30-year resident lays out her opposition.

Editor Note: The will meet on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. and will be taking public comment on the. This is the one of several letters from readers on Bob Brown's apppointment to the . Patch will publish an exclusive interview with shortly.

On February 15th, Novato city manager, Michael Frank, announced his plan to hire two highly experienced part-time individuals to replace recently retired Dave Wallace as Novato's Directors.  Of the two, Bob Brown is the more controversial when you evaluate his position on high density affordable housing and the need for local government to "fill the void" of national leadership regarding climate change. 

Though Mr. Brown's values are admirable I do not agree that his is the only route available to address homelessness or environmental conservation.  My greatest concern is that Mr. Brown sees himself as an activist and therefore will be unwilling to explore options that veer from his stated beliefs. If that is the case then the people of Novato will not be getting what they asked for in this critical area of an updated housing element and general plan.

In the past year, Novato has taken a stand against the imposition of high density affordable housing going so far as to challenge the Association Of Bay Area Government's (ABAG) quotas by putting together a prospective housing element that favors low to moderate density and maintains the rural/suburban character of Novato's existing neighborhoods.  However, Mr. Brown's vision supports ABAG's One Bay Area Plan.  One Bay Area emphasizes the addition of high density low income housing clustered around transportation hubs throughout Marin.  In this regard Mr. Brown's views are radically different from the ones established by last year's affordable housing working group and by the city council. 

"Novato residents and officials have expressed concerns about One Bay Area housing projections that will eventually be linked to state-mandated allocations. One Bay Area figures released in March 2011 called for growth of 778 households in that city, or 3.8 percent by 2035; but a series of new figures drafted in August doubled the projection to between 1,570 and 1,610 households....By comparison, San Rafael's projected growth was cut from 21.8 percent, or 5,045 households in March 2011, to anywhere from 11 to 17.6 percent growth in August — 2,500 to 4,000 households...While the city still plans to accommodate what could be the county's densest development, officials from San Rafael suggested a "more equitable distribution" of housing after the March figures were released, Brown said." Marin Independent Journal 1/15/12

The Novato city council recently challenged ABAG's arbitrary transfer of increased numbers of affordable housing units from San Rafael to Novato.  Mr. Brown seems unperturbed by San Rafael passing its numbers north even though Novato specifically did not accept MTC funding to avoid a responsibility of this kind. 

"Bob believes that government must be a catalyst in moving residents and businesses towards more sustainable lifestyles and business practices.  He is a strong advocate for coordinated local action to fill the void of national leadership." Resilient Neighborhoods.org

The Novato City Council in their January 30, 2012 letter to ABAG, made clear their objections to regionally compelled density requirements and to rising numbers of homes being built with little regard for local control or a reasoned process behind the numbers themselvesMr. Brown seems like the last person to advocate for goals of limited growth within a community framework that uses lower to moderate density and attempts to seamlessly integrate new affordable housing into an existing scheme of predominantly single family neighborhoods. 

Mr. Brown appears to favor new development that will increase the urban character of a city without balancing the tax base that will be needed to financially support growth.  One time funds supplied by MTC or HUD do not offer sufficient income to cover the ongoing costs of city services provided to residents who will not contribute to the property tax base.  Affordable housing is funded through non profits.  Non profits do not pay property taxes.  The percentage of low income housing incorporated into each city is dependent on property taxes paid by higher income households and by sales tax revenue.

In the city of San Rafael Mr. Brown added 400 units of high density low income housing to the downtown area.  Now San Rafael is asking ABAG to push a significant piece of its housing allotment to Novato because they recognize the size of the burden they have assumed by accepting MTC money.  Novato specifically did not take money from MTC because they did not want their totals exponentially increased

"Encouraging Housing: A fundamental strategy for meeting these goals was to build more housing downtown (San Rafael)…For example, in some areas the city doubled height limits from three to six stories, halved residential parking requirements to one space per, apartment and increased density limits from 42 to 72 homes per acre. Between 1993 and 2006, nearly 400 homes were built downtown, adding 50% more housing." Grow Smart Bay Area Greenbelt Alliance

In a letter dated May 24, 2011, to Novato's former Community Development Director, Dave Wallace, Mr. Brown specifically recommends that Novato:  increase housing density to 30+acres, add affordable housing (AH) density bonuses, and zone extensive mixed use high density housing to be built along the Redwood transportation corridor as well as on sites at 1901 Novato Boulevard and 1787 Grant Avenue.  Mr. Brown insists that anything less than 30+ acres of density + AH bonus, will be rejected outright by ABAG, negate certification of the housing element and lead to costly legal battles. 

Nowhere in Mr. Brown's letter does he acknowledge the significant difference in tax base between Novato with 5% land zoned commercial and San Rafael with 11% land zoned commercial.   Without considerable sales tax revenue increases Novato cannot make up the losses incurred when affordable housing is built lacking a sufficient property tax base.  Mr. Brown's vision though compassionate, does not provide balance with a city experiencing multimillion dollar structural deficits.  The question remains:  Why are we hiring an affordable housing activist to create our next housing element and update our general plan?

In his work for San Rafael, Mr. Brown produced affordable housing with density bonuses ranging from 25% to, 45% to 53% to 62% in different projects.  Mr. Brown is noted for his participation in a strategy of sustainable communities that ties transportation, to high density multistory housing.  Mr. Brown advocates the "Mayor's Protection Climate Change Agreement" which is tied to the Kyoto protocol which has not yet been ratified by the United States and which Canada has sought withdrawal from due to its significant financial penalties for not meeting stated goals.  Mr. Brown has strong beliefs in many areas of government where regulation is tied to planning.  He appears to have integrated those beliefs with his work in San Rafael.  Will he do the same with Novato?

Mr. Brown's contributions in the area of climate change and sustainable high density development have been commended by many local advocacy groups. However, his position as a Novato Co Director of Community Development requires a willingness to support the views of the community and the council for which he works.  In Novato this would appear to differ from his stated position of social and environmental advocacy. How will Mr. Brown rationalize this conflict?  Will he be more likely to try to bring city planners to his way of thinking?  Even the county of Marin has made a request to have ABAG's density quota's reduced to reflect Marin's suburban character.  Where will Mr. Brown's loyalties lie if in his heart he believes in a high density strategy to eliminate homelessness and protect against climate change?  

In a recent letter to ABAG the council reiterated a stance that Novato did not want San Rafael's surplus housing and would not agree to a sustainable community vision that foisted housing beyond Novato's fiscal capacity.  After more than a year of community input the council recognized the need to retain local control over planning issues including the development of low income affordable housing. 

The question remains how Mr. Brown will reconcile what the community and council have requested with his own view that affordable housing mandates have not gone far enough to increase the supply of low income homes in Marin.

Has Mr. Brown been chosen to assist in the completion of the updated housing element in order to bypass last year's community workshops?  Is Mr. Frank's vision for Novato more in line with what Mr. Brown has done in San Rafael?  Is Novato ready for multi-story buildings resembling downtown San Rafael or Novato's Millwork's project throughout the Redwood Corridor that increase our population to the degree that our structural budget deficit triples or quadruples in the next ten years?  Why would Mr. Frank specifically choose to add an individual to our planning department who is clearly a leader in the affordable housing community?

On February 28th, Mr. Frank has asked the city council to confirm Mr. Brown's position as co-community development director.  We need answers to these questions before considering any continued involvement with Mr. Brown in such a vital aspect of our city government.

-Tina McMillan, MFT is a psychotherapist and consultant. She has lived in Novato for thirty years. She is married with two adult sons.

Tina McMillan February 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM
I bring up Stockton because I believe everyone needs to pay heed to how local tax dollars are being spent and what new debts are being incurred. Remember we currently have a $2.5 million dollar structural tax deficit and yet we are still building class A offices downtown, without needed parking for merchants, at a currently declared cost of $15 to $17 million, not including the value of the land or the RDA bond interest payments. There was some question about whether we would have to pay back the $6 million in cash we took out of the RDA before it closed and how the bonds will be managed is up to the successor agency that will be taking over. The next community development directors will have their hands full with both the housing element and the general plan. If we don't increase our commercial zoning we will be hard pressed to find ways to overcome our structural debt other than increasing taxes. We continue to cut back on city services and employees and this year our school district has yet again to cut back on teachers, support staff and survive with the closure of one of three middle schools. We may not be going bankrupt but we are certainly struggling with serious financial constraints. Who we hire and how they propose to help overcome these difficulties is the most important issue we face in the next year.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr February 27, 2012 at 02:27 AM
@ Tina, yes, it is worthwhile to say, I told you so. And, yes, the city elections are intentionally held in odd numbered years; specifically so that most people do not vote. All of this dialog is spinning straw into gold unless the writers herein can do two things; 1-change city voting to even numbered years, 2-find some way to wake up 71% of the Novato population. If I am not mistaken, governor moonbeam just changed the election code so that all initiatives are on the ballot in even numbered years. So even gov moonbeam recognized that odd numbered year elections are ignored. Leslie had a huge issue and a huge following. What will it take to wake up that 71+% who thinks that everything is just fine?
Renee February 27, 2012 at 04:25 AM
Mr. Ghigliotti Jr. Please GO AWAY the voters have indeed spoken! you were not elected and I seriously doubt with your very negative sentiments you NEVER will be. ADIOS
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr February 27, 2012 at 05:21 AM
Sorry. I will not go away. I will stick around and point out all of our follies until such time as people will have to sit up and listen. No the voters have not spoken, The voters are still asleep.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr February 27, 2012 at 05:22 AM
Thanks. I look forward to meeting with you, but not this Tuesday. I will bide my time.


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