San Rafael exploring options to address housing shortage

POSTED: 11/15/18

Author: Adrian Rodriguez

Publication: Marin Independent Journal

The Strand residential development at Loch Lomond Marina in San Rafael on Nov. 5. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

Faced with a state directive to build 1,007 living units by 2023, San Rafael officials are pondering ways to streamline housing developments, avoid delays and encourage more housing.

Paul Jensen, community development director of San Rafael, this week presented a housing report to the Planning Commission, detailing state-mandated housing laws, the city’s existing housing policies and regulations, the available housing stock, including affordable units and rental properties and active development.

“We have the lowest housing vacancy that we’ve had in a long time,” Jensen said at the Tuesday meeting. “We have a median home price of over $1.1 million in San Rafael, skyrocketing rents impacting our lower-income residents in the community; we have homelessness in need of housing and we have an aging population.”

After receiving the same presentation in August, the City Council in October held a meeting to consider a rental discrimination ordinance that would prohibit landlords from turning away prospective tenants who use Section 8 vouchers or other subsidies. Fairfax, Novato and the county of Marin have already adopted a similar ordinance.

The City Council then tasked city staff to get feedback from the Planning Commission and to concentrate on four topics, including renters rights and rental discrimination; short-term rentals; obstacles and barriers to approving and building housing and strategies and challenges associated with the aging population. The council will host a public hearing on a proposed fair housing ordinance at an upcoming meeting.

The state requires that each city and town adopt a general plan that includes a housing element designed to outline goals, policies and programs to promote and facilitate housing. For the 2015-2023 period, the state-mandated Regional Housing Need Allocation, or RHNA, says that San Rafael needs to build 1,007 units.

Jensen said that the housing element plans for nearly double that, “so we’re in pretty good shape.”

So far in the 2015-2023 cycle, 176 living units have been approved and 108 have been built, according to the report, leaving the city responsible for building nearly 900 more units by the deadline.

As made evident during the recession, sometimes housing is planned and approved, but it takes years to get built. In the 2007-2014 RHNA cycle for example, San Rafael officials approved projects that included a total of 324 housing units, but only 171 units were built in that time frame.

Many projects, including the under-construction Loch Lomond Marina development, an 81-unit mixed-use community dubbed the Strand, was delayed nearly seven years due to the recession — and today still is making slow progress toward completion, Jensen said.

Jensen said especially when projects are controversial the city approval comes with a laundry list of conditions that end up being costly for the applicant to accomplish, which gums up the process.

Other obstacles include dealing with changing state laws. In 2017 alone, 16 new housing law were approved, Jensen said.

There are 60,651 residents in San Rafael and about 23,906 housing units, according to the staff report. Eighteen percent of residents are over 65 and 40 percent of owner-occupied households are headed by someone 65 or older. About 41 percent of homeowners over 65 live alone.

When it comes to affordable housing, or below-market-rate housing, there are 1,414 units in San Rafael, including 256 senior units, compared with 6,125 units across the county, of which 1,126 are senior units.

The city has had an inclusionary housing ordinance, which requires developers to offer 20 percent of the units at an affordable rate, Jensen said. The city also collects an in-lieu fee and puts that money into a fund, which has grown to $1.3 million that is earmarked to build or buy a site for below-market-rate projects, Jensen said.

Commissioner Jeff Schoppert said that he would like to hear regular status updates on approved projects that are under construction.

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