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Op-Ed: Encouraging Second Units Would Help Solve Housing Issue

The most noteworthy words in the city's draft housing element that are "critical decisions occur at the local level." Government could give property owners a break on fees for second units.

Housing elements provide communities with goal driven strategies that ensure cities create zoning for housing that will accommodate people whose income ranges from extremely low, very low, low to moderate. Housing elements work in conjunction with a city's general plan.  Novato is currently updating both its housing element and general plan. 

Novato is providing a housing element update that redesignates affordable multifamily housing as buildable in densities of 20 units per acre.  This is the single most important objective of the draft housing element.  If it is approved it will provide Novato with a level of local control that maintains the character and integrity of existing neighborhoods while making the creation of affordable housing a fiscally sound proposition.

According to Novato's 2009-2014 draft housing element: 

"Housing element law recognizes the most critical decisions regarding housing development occur at the local level within the context of the periodically updated general plan." page 2 Draft Housing Element 2009-2014 ..." 

The most noteworthy words that are in this document are "critical decisions occur at the local level."  It voices what everyone in our community wants — a basic say as to what is built in our neighborhoods, in our downtown, in our shopping centers, in our business and commercial districts and throughout Novato. 

There are obstacles to passing a housing element with fewer than 30 units per acre of multifamily housing. We will be under scrutiny by HCD as well as agencies such as Public Advocates and Marin Fair Housing.  It is up to us to prove that we have satisfied every law and every objective throughout this document.  It would be helpful if the city could tell us what nonprofit groups were involved in the process of creating the housing element and which ones have threatened litigation as a means of controlling density or any other objectives. We need to challenge the misperception that affordable housing equals high density housing.

If the planning department can equalize issues between residents and developers and between Novato and other cities in Marin then our housing element and general plan would function with a greater appreciation for the financial circumstances of the majority of Novato's residents.  For example, when a local resident attempts to build a second unit on their property it is critical that they are given the same permit discounts and streamlining that apply to nonprofit housing developers. In Novato fees for second units are excessively high. The income of Novato residents is modest by comparison to their southern Marin neighbors. This fact is commented on repeatedly throughout the report including lower overall market rate housing costs in mortgages and rentals. We need the ability to take care of our aging family members, help our adult children, support our disabled family members and provide housing for ourselves. If costs can be cut for developers then surely they can be cut for residents.

The housing element provides a list of quantified housing objectives and housing goals, policies and programs. Some are in favor of developers and nonprofits while others favor residents.  By and large the distribution supports the efforts of nonprofit housing developers in order to satisfy HCD.  It is important that we clarify with the planning department whether objectives, goals, policies and programs are the equivalent of mandates. If we give up local control particularly in environmental review, design and long term project management then we are left with projects that may cost us our neighborhoods.  We need reassurances that this will not be the case. 

Overall the draft housing element concludes that we can meet our regional housing needs requirements for 2009 through 2014, that our planning and building fees are comparable to other cities in Marin, but that our impact fees, sewer and water hookup fees need to be reduced in order to make housing development feasible for both developers and residents.  The city proposes to work with the sanitary and water district to find ways to reduce or waive fees for developers.  Could the city do the same for individual residents who would like to build second units on their property? Helping individual residents succeed in caring for our aging and disabled population is as important as supporting the development of affordable housing by nonprofit developers. If the city can see the individual as a valued partner, then we can work together toward common goals.

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Tina McMillan October 17, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Dave Thanks for clarifying. If you take a look at what has been built in Novato it comes with funding through Marin Community Foundation, the RDA (now closed), the city, and Non profits that are now in the business of building housing for the poor and needy. In many respects I agree with your comments but I also know we must provide a draft housing element capable of certification in order to move forward. I think it is important to provide community members with alternatives because so many of us have had either aging parents in need of assistance or adult children who return home due to the economic climate. Since we cannot guarantee what will be built where we need to encourage the development of housing that meets this need. Homeward Bound just posted information about Oma's Village and from all reports it is going in at fewer than 20 units per acre, it will have ongoing education and support for families in need of permanent housing with a transitional emphasis. I am encouraging everyone with a stake in this to contact the city, the council and HCD to say Novato does care for its poor and needy. This is essential to counteract the letter written by SUNN saying that the current housing element is not doing enough.
Dave Robertson October 18, 2012 at 04:37 AM
Tina: Thanks also. It is definitely a problem with aging parent, and adult children returning home is also an unfortunate problem. But we have to draw the line somewhere in this state when it comes to excessive spending. While many Californians are liberal and want to help everyone out, the often forget that general funds are short and pathetic measure like Prop. 30 always run out of "other people's money". Novato may not care for its poor and needy, but it doesn't excuse it for failing to care for it's long time residents. Perhaps I am used to these things in other cities and states, but the key to financial solvency is for cities and states to do what they can do - no more. The whole Bay Area housing initiative is out of line in 2012, as there are so many "middle class" residents in housing distress (underwater and foreclosure). We need to take care of "regular" residents first! Everything else now has become excessive. There are so many people who are stuck in their homes in this town, that it is not fair to make matters more difficult for them. Yet when do you ever hear of the City Council's concern for the average Novatan? Never! Frankly of our governments want to do some good, they might want to look to their current residents.
Al Dugan October 18, 2012 at 04:55 AM
Well said. The city has to take care of the residents that have lived here for years and worked hard to buy and keep their houses. How that has been pushed to the backseat make no sense. Unfortunately, the money to fund politicians does not come from long term residents so, they are left in the cold.
Al Dugan October 18, 2012 at 05:27 AM
Sucient and well documented. For people that make big money these are off the chart tax credits. That why the triad, developers, builders and institutional investors are chomping at the bit that work so well. As always, follow the money.
Tina McMillan October 18, 2012 at 05:40 AM
Dave I think we are on the same page with regard to fiscal reform and the need to refocus the city on existing programs. Outside of in lieu fees I don't know where they are going to come up with matching funds for AH projects. The closure of RDA's was significant. Now if we could only address the inequities due to spending beyond our means for such a long time. This draft housing element was a start. However, groups like SUNN have a different idea of what it is to provide for Novato residents. SUNN sent a letter to HCD complaining Novato has not done enough. Katie Crecelius one of SUNN's founding members has close ties to HCD and the affordable housing community. There appears to be no room for compromise with SUNN members. They have thrown Novato under the proverbial bus.

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