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Rare opportunities for Marin workforce housing

Submitted by News Desk on Sat, 08/09/2008 - 10:00pm

MARIN and much of California have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide a supply of affordable housing without fostering environmentally unsound growth. The current precipitous decline in real estate prices makes that possible.

Instead of foisting inappropriate development, government and housing advocates including the Marin Community Foundation must shift their focus.

They need to simultaneously pursue two strategies. The first is buying residences and condominiums at bargain basement prices and retaining these as "affordable" rental units. The second is to assist potential homeowners who can't locate adequate financing on these now reasonably priced homes.

The truth is that California doesn't have a "housing crisis." There aren't hordes of people unable to find places to live. Realtors say that there are scores of properties on the market at prices that haven't been seen in a decade. It's a temporary phenomenon, but until the economy straightens itself out in four or five years, it's also a great opportunity.

The silver lining is that many hardworking middle-class folks can now afford to live in these soon-to-be vacant homes, but only if they can assemble a down payment and secure financing.

The housing price decline is acute in North Marin but bargains are appearing in Central Marin and for Southern Marin condominiums. In some neighborhoods, prices have declined by more than 20 percent.

Assisting buyers in acquiring already built housing may not be what developers and the construction industry had in mind when they convinced the state Legislature and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) to mandated new housing.

Unfortunately, ABAG doesn't just require more affordable units. It also demands building ever more market rate homes. That the latter requirement continues even as California's housing inventory bursts at the seams, demonstrates the fallacy behind its regulations.

The real problem is that many communities don't have a diverse range of housing. Counties such as Solano and Contra Costa are overloaded with affordable homes. In prosperous counties such as Marin with higher land values, "workforce" housing became too expensive for middle-class families.

This new real estate reality can help police officers, firefighters, teachers and retail workers obtain affordable Marin housing. To do so, public agencies and housing advocates must shift from promoting new construction toward efficiently utilizing the existing housing stock.

What's needed is a region-wide revolving loan fund to create an ample source of affordable credit based on sound lending practices.

Instead of using public and nonprofit money to build new houses, Marin needs to buy vacant units and help new homeowners with affordable loans and then by granting them a real property tax holiday.

It's a good move for working families, for sellers desperately looking for buyers, for middle-class neighborhoods facing a glut of foreclosures and for local governments seeking a balanced population mix without tearing apart existing communities with new development.

This is where the Marin Community Foundation can take a bold leadership role.

Helping people buy or rent existing low-priced homes and apartments is the best real world answer to providing a broad range of housing options for Marinites.