This article originally appeared in the SF Chronicle. By J.K. Dineen
Marin City native Bettie Hodges has spent a half a century battling for equal access to education, decent housing and employment opportunities for low-income African Americans in one of California’s wealthiest counties.
In 1979, she founded the Marin City Community Development Corporation, which for years built low-income housing in a neighborhood that has by far the highest percentage of African Americans in the county. She was part of a group that sued the county — twice — to force integration of the school district. She runs the Hannah Project, an education nonprofit.
“We have been fighting for years in this community to be respected by the county, to have a place where Black people could simply live,” she said.
Given her long track record of community involvement, Hodges says she and her neighbors were shocked when they learned last year that a 74-unit apartment complex proposed for the heart of Marin City had been administratively approved in late 2020 by county officials without any public hearings or notice to the community.
The development at 825 Drake Ave. was approved under SB35, which allows builders to increase density and height, as well as bypass local planning approval process, in exchange for including more affordable units. While the law is seen as a tool to take power away from NIMBY obstructionists who oppose multifamily development, Marin City residents point to the fact that their community of 3,000 is, in stark contrast to most of the county, made up mostly of low-income multifamily developments.
The 1-acre site at 825 Drake Ave. is a skinny strip of land that overlooks Richardson Bay, where Hodges’ father — like thousands of workers who migrated from the South — toiled in the shipyards during World War II. In those years, racist covenants prevented African American families from leasing or buying property in most of Marin County, leaving Marin City as the only option for households looking to live close to the Marinship, where 93 cargo ships and oil tankers were built between 1942 and 1945.
The Drake Avenue site is across the street from George Rocky Graham Park, a popular playground, and backs up to Village Oduduwa, a low-income senior complex. The project would be built with modular units, which will be produced at a factory in Idaho and then trucked to the site. Residents say the building would create traffic hazards at the playground and block the air and light of the seniors above. They also say the new development will be unaffordable to locals and doesn’t have nearly enough parking — just 24 spots for the 74 apartments.
“We worked hard to have that housing built — we thought it was important to have a place for our seniors,” Hodges said. “Now to have this big ugly building blocking their light … We feel like it will disrupt the quality of life of our community in a major way.”
While already controversial, backlash to the Drake Avenue project exploded a few weeks ago when an article appeared in the weekly Pacific Sun newspaper in which one of the developers called residents of the historically Black Marin City “communists” who “just want free handouts.”
In the interview, Alexis Gevorgian of AMG & Associates — the company that is working on the development with the Pacific Companies — blamed project opposition on “30 people” who want to “screw it up for 150 to 200 people.”
“Those 30 people, they don’t care. It’s all about them. ‘Give me more. Give me more vouchers. Lower our rent,’ ” he was quoted as saying. “I’m just a builder coming into a hornet’s nest. All I want to do is build. You don’t like it, don’t live there.”
The comments were condemned by Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters, who represents the southern portion of Marin County. She called the statements egregious and said “they show an utter disregard for the African American community in Marin City.”
Caleb Roope, CEO of the Pacific Companies, said Gevorgian is no longer working on the project.
“The comments were inappropriate and I know Alexis regrets making them,” said Roope. “It makes a tough situation certainly worse. I am having to deal with the fallout and the hurt feelings, which are justified.”
Roope said he is working on a redesign of the project that would add more parking: “My goal is to get to a one-to-one parking-to-unit ratio.”
While the project is a 100% below market rate development, Marin City residents say even the subsidized rents are far more than locals can afford. The income limits that define rents are based on the “area median incomes” of the county, rather than Marin City. Thus, rents at 825 Drake would be set at 80% of area median income, which would mean that a single person with an income of $116,000 could qualify. That is about three times the median income in Marin City.
Already, the Marin City Housing Authority agreed to provide 25 Section 8 vouchers for the Drake Avenue building, which would bring down rents substantially in one-third of the units.
Roope said he is exploring ways to bring rents down further.
The debate around the project comes at a time when the California Department of Housing and Community Development, empowered by laws like SB35, is putting pressure on local jurisdictions to produce more housing or risk losing state funding. Like cities and counties across California, Marin is scrambling to finalize its housing element, the state-mandated plan requiring the county to plan for 3,569 units over the next eight years. Of those units, 1,734 must be designated as affordable to lower-income households.
While the current draft of Marin’s housing element includes four Marin City projects totaling 286 units, the county is focused on spurring residential building in parts of the county “that don’t have much higher density housing now,” according to Sarah Jones, director of development for the Marin County Community Development Agency.
Three of the four Marin City projects were proposed several years ago, before the housing element process started. And the 286 units is about 100 fewer homes than is planned for Strawberry, an affluent, unincorporated town next to Tiburon that is home to a 127-acre former seminary that a group has been trying to redevelop with housing.
“We’re eager to see more housing that’s affordable for Marin’s workforce throughout the county, especially in our high resource neighborhoods,” Jones said.
Moulton-Peters said the “current project shows a lack of understanding and complete disregard for this historic African American community.”
“I do not think this is what the creators of SB35 had in mind,” she said. “We need truly affordable units, and we need a smaller project, with less units on this site.”
As an unincorporated part of the county, Marin City residents have long complained that their voices are ignored, according to resident Marilyn Mackel, a retired attorney.
“There is a plantation mentality,” said Mackel. “Let’s call it what it is. It’s making decisions that affect people’s lives without including them.”
With 825 Drake, those feelings have intensified.
“I think people were offended that we didn’t know about a project of this size and scale, that we didn’t hear about it from the county until they had approved it,” said Mackel. “If those developers had come and talked to the community at least you would have had the respect of communication. We might still have a fight, but at least talk to people.”
While it’s hardly surprising that Marin County neighbors would band together to block development — from Belvedere to Strawberry to Lucas Valley, affluent Marin residents have a long history of torpedoing housing proposals — the debate over 825 Drake is unique, Hodges said.
“I would dare anybody to call me a NIMBY,” she said. “I have street cred for all the projects I have supported, all the meetings where I have spoken in support of affordable housing.”
Hodges and other opponents are petitioning both county and state officials to reconsider funding for the project.
Meanwhile, Roope said the easiest thing to do would be to “abandon the project” and return the tax credit money that has already been awarded to the development.
But he is not ready to give up. “My job is to talk to the neighbors and mitigate as many of their concerns as possible,” he said.
Reach J.K. Dineen: [email protected]