A Passion to Promote Low-Income HousingCarolyn Said | April 1, 2012
An impish grin spread across Mary Murtagh's face as she drove her silver Prius down Magnolia Avenue, just past downtown Larkspur.
"See if you can guess where the affordable housing is," she said. "Look, there's a beautiful complex over there, two beautiful complexes on the right, a historic red-brick winery on the left."
Edgewater Place - the first project Murtagh shepherded after taking the reins of San Rafael affordabledeveloper EAH Housing a quarter-century ago - was one of those complexes, a cluster of attractive garden-style apartment buildings nestled among flowering pear trees alongside Corte Madera Creek.
With charm, persistence, grit and "a lot of good Irish luck," Murtagh, 65, has devoted her career to building low-income housing throughout California and Hawaii that defies expectations.
A gift of gab, a knack for navigating red tape and a passion for social justice underlie her success in dealing with Byzantine regulations, massively complex funding sources and NIMBYism.
As a graduate student in architecture at MIT, Murtagh spent a semester working at an old-school housing project, a hulking structure where the dingy apartments had cinderblock walls and the elevators were broken or filthy.
"I had expected a gracious class, perched at a desk, drawing plans, and we ended up swinging hammers and hanging out with residents at the worst public housing development in Boston," she said. "They were great people - smart, capable, tough - and they were trapped in this hideous environment because it was all they could afford. People were being robbed and held up regularly.
"I had an insight that there had to be a better way to help people through housing than to put them in these God-awful places."
That epiphany has carried her through a career overseeing the building of more than 6,800 units of affordable housing at 83 properties in California and Hawaii.
EAH generally rents to people making between 30 and 60 percent of area median income. In Alameda County, for instance, that's $93,500 a year for a family of four. A family making $28,050 (30 percent of median income) might pay $550 a month for a two-bedroom apartment at EAH's Camellia Place in Dublin, while a family making $56,100 (60 percent) might pay $1,131 for a similar two-bedroom.
All its properties have multiyear waiting lists. New complexes get deluged with applicants and hold lotteries to select residents.
"It's a hand up, not a hand out," Murtagh said. "Everyone in our buildings pays rent, and everyone is working unless they're disabled or retired."
Some 20,000 residents - families, seniors, students, people with disabilities - now have roofs over their heads thanks to EAH. "But we're still sweeping the ocean back with a broom compared to what the need is," she said.
Murtagh grew up in small-town Hanover, N.H., home of Dartmouth College, where her doctor dad taught medicine and her homemaker mom, a former social worker, acted in the theater troupe. "I had a wonderful childhood running around and falling out of trees, putting dams across streams, taking cows to pasture in front of our house, hiking and skiing," she said.
At elite all-women's Wellesley College, she majored in philosophy and art history. It was a heady time, as previously sheltered young women discovered feminism, civil rights and the antiwar movement, said Priscilla Heilveil, a close friend from those days.
"I don't think 'Murt' has ever lost her '60s idealism," Heilveil said. "She's very gifted and could have made a fortune as an architect, but her passion is social justice."
As seniors, Murtagh and friends wanted a student speaker at graduation to offset the conservative senator slated to talk. The college president refused, so they "said the hell with this," Murtagh recalled, and organized a protest until the administration capitulated.
Picking the speaker was easy: The class of 1969 had a megastar named Hillary Rodham.
"Everyone on campus knew her," Murtagh said. "She was super smart, very engaging and involved in government issues even then."
White House reunions
The future secretary of state "gave a real barn burner" of a speech, landing her photo in Life magazine. As first lady, she hosted class reunions at the White House.
Murtagh went on to MIT, where she had the fateful encounter with public housing.
After grad school, she worked for the Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency on inner-city job creation programs, showing a talent for landing federal grants. She studied real estate financing at UCLA and became fascinated with the idea of being a developer, even though the only ones she knew "were white guys with matching ties, briefcases and calculators."
She moved to the Bay Area in the early 1980s with her future husband, biochemist Fred Jacobson. They now live in Berkeley and have two sons. Adam, 22, is a computer science major at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.; Aaron, 17, is a junior at Berkeley High.
Jacobson, she said, is "hot on the trail of a new drug for breast cancer" at Genentech. Their dual nonstop careers can make for a harried home life. "Let's not talk about the state of housekeeping at my house," she said.
In Murtagh's first Bay Area job, she worked with St. Vincent De Paul and the San Francisco Department of Public Health to acquire and rehab a Tenderloin hotel to house recovering alcoholics.
"Mary is a small Irish lass who is like a pit bull when she gets onto something," said Mark Buell, a philanthropist and Democratic fundraiser who was her boss on that project, and later served on EAH's board for a decade. "She leaves no stone unturned. She will use every contact she has any time there's a hint of change in the very complex rules around affordable housing."
In 1986 she started as head of EAH, then a small struggling nonprofit crammed into an office behind a San Rafael church.
Nationwide, funds for affordable housing, ravaged by cuts under former presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, were at a nadir. But that year saw the introduction of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which gives companies big tax write-offs for investing in affordable rental complexes.
"All of a sudden - poof! bada bing! - there was a huge, flexible funding source," she said. "It was the biggest expansion in affordable housing that had ever happened."
Her first coup was sweet-talking a developer into selling the Larkspur land for Edgewater Place at a huge discount for the tax break. Edgewater received its planning permits in May 1989 - the night before her first son was born.
Early on, she successfully lobbied for California legislation that gave a property tax exemption to the owners of housing for families making below 80 percent of area median income. That provided an ongoing financial boost for developers of affordable complexes.
Murtagh soon realized that EAH should expand beyond the "stony ground" of development-averse Marin. As she worked to build affordable complexes throughout the state and later Hawaii, she spearheaded the inclusion of quality-of-life amenities such as after-school tutoring, GED programs and tax-preparation assistance. She pioneered computer learning centers, something that's now commonplace.
"Mary is visionary," said Amie Fishman, executive director of the East Bay Housing Organizations. "She pushes ideas before they're popularized, and only later do they become the obvious thing."
She was an early proponent of green building. In 2005, EAH put enough solar panels on Richmond's 378- unit Crescent Park complex to generate almost a megawatt of electricity, then the largest such installation on affordable housing anywhere.
"Solar now is on everything we do," she said.
She's also an advocate of dense housing located near jobs and transit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Her newest passion project is a college scholarship fund for EAH residents created this year. "We have so many worthy kids who deserve to go to college and don't have the money," she said.
"Against a strong headwind of opposition that always arises around individual projects, she has been able to maintain for decades a sense of optimism and purpose," said Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey.
He recalled a project at Point Reyes Station that neighbors resisted. "Mary and her team stepped back from the idea on the table, pulled out a clean sheet of paper and said, 'OK, let's talk about what you want to see in affordable housing here.' She opened it up and had a community advisory vote. In the end, there was substantial support for the project."
Now, as affordable housing faces the worst financial climate in decades, Murtagh "is helping to identify the next generation of funding opportunities," he said.
California's elimination of redevelopment agencies slashes about $1 billion a year from affordable housing construction. Creating a double whammy, state bond-backed subsidies for affordable housing expired about 18 months ago.
EAH brings in two-thirds of its revenue managing complexes - about 330 of its 400 employees are involved in on-site work - so it will survive, but new construction of desperately needed housing is likely to grind to a halt.
Housing advocates back SB1220, which would impose a $75 recording fee on real estate documents, generating around $700 million a year for affordable housing. The California Association of Realtors opposes the bill on the grounds it increases the cost of buying a home.
"So many people erroneously think the foreclosure crisis solved the housing crisis," Murtagh said. "Even at their discounted rates, foreclosed-upon houses are beyond the reach of people in the income ranges we serve."
Darlene "Dollie" Moore, 73, a resident of EAH's Rodeo Gateway senior housing, exemplifies that. Retired from her electronics quality-assurance job, she lives on about $1,000 a month from Social Security. She pays $227 a month for a modest one-bedroom apartment and enjoys the "wonderful people," Bingo games, computer room and proximity to stores.
"This was just God's blessing," she said. "Otherwise, I would never have been able to live in the Bay Area near my grandchildren, who are the light of my life."
Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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