June 30, 2005 - The upscale Marin County community of Corte Madera got a national award Wednesday for creating something nobody has associated with the suburb in a long time -- affordable housing.
The town of 9,500 inhabitants was one of 14 communities nationwide to receive the Robert L. Woodson Jr. Award from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C.
Corte Madera and Oxnard were the only California jurisdictions to receive the award, given in memory of HUD's late chief of staff and which recognizes cities that have successfully eliminated regulatory barriers to affordable housing.
The accolade might come as a surprise to house hunters who have looked into housing costs in the town at the base of Mount Tamalpais, where the median price of a home tops $800,000.
Local advocates for affordable housing sued Corte Madera a few years ago for allegedly failing to include affordable housing provisions in its housing element. But the Town Council recently has approved nearly 100 units of affordable housing. That includes a 79-unit housing complex that is expected to be completed by spring 2007.
"The reason we were competitive is that we started with a relatively weak housing program, and the town rose to the occasion and adopted a strategy that worked," said Robert Pendoley, the planning director and assistant town manager. "The 79 units are remarkable because they are a result of strong regulatory incentives to get housing built."
Affordable housing, according to HUD, is housing that is available to people whose annual income is at least 20 percent less than the median income.
The median income in Corte Madera is $113,100 for a family of four. The 79 units planned on 3.5 acres off San Clemente Drive will house families that make, at most, 40 percent less than the median, according to Andy Blauvelt, the project manager for the developer, EAH Inc., also known as the Ecumenical Association for Housing.
In other words, Blauvelt said, a family of four with an annual income of $67,860 will be the wealthiest people in the complex. The Craftsman-style complex, built on top of concrete parking garages, will also have units set aside for developmentally disabled residents, he said.
"It is rare to get an opportunity to produce this much affordable housing in Marin," Blauvelt said. "EAH had tried for several decades to develop affordable housing in Corte Madera without success."
Larry Bush, the HUD spokesman for the San Francisco region, said Corte Madera is a prime example of how well-to-do communities can provide housing for the teachers, firefighters and blue-collar workers who are being priced out of the Bay Area housing market.
Corte Madera did it by creating a series of incentives after the town's housing element was challenged in 1998. The new housing element, adopted in 2002, created a zoning district that allowed densities three times higher than normal if developers agreed to make at least 50 percent of the housing affordable.
HUD only requires 20 percent of redevelopment housing to be affordable.
The town also simplified the permit process and waived application, traffic impact and park dedication fees for affordable housing developers. Several other incentives also were added, including permission to include some commercial development along with the affordable housing.
"HUD wants to make sure that good intentions are matched by good results, and Corte Madera is a model for accomplishing that," Bush said.
"We are serving a whole range of needs with this housing," Blauvelt said. "We could not have done this project without the program changes and incentives."
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