Finding affordable housing in an unaffordable place

Krissy Clark Jun 10, 2015

Finding affordable housing in an unaffordable place

Krissy Clark Jun 10, 2015

This is part one of a three-part series. Read the second and third parts.

You may have noticed some headlines a few months back about how filmmaker George Lucas has decided to get in to the affordable housing business.  In April, he announced plans to spend more than $100 million of his own money to build apartments for workers and low-income seniors on a rural plot of land he owns in Marin, a wealthy county just north of San Francisco where he’s lived and worked for many decades.

This news got a lot of coverage and inspired a lot of puns about how Lucas was “Striking Back” against his neighbors, after they’d resisted his earlier efforts to build a movie studio on that same piece of land. But there’s a deeper story underneath all this — that has to do with just how hard it can be to build affordable housing in a place that is anything but.

Marin County has some of the most expensive housing in the nation.  The county is full of beaches, redwoods and rolling hills. It’s also right next to San Francisco’s booming tech economy.

But Marin has very limited housing stock: more than 80 percent of Marin has been set aside never to be developed.

In Marin, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is more than $1,700 dollars. The median home price is more than $800,000. It has one of the highest median incomes and highest levels of income inequality in the nation. Lots of high earners call it home — movie stars, lawyers and doctors. But middle-income folks like teachers and nurses? Not so much. Many of them commute from other less-expensive counties.

And low-income workers mostly cluster in Marin’s few higher-density areas near the freeway, doubling or tripling up in units. 

Sharon Mincheff lived in one of those over-crowded apartment buildings in Marin until a few years ago.

She worked as a care-giver for the elderly. Then she lost her job and couldn’t afford her apartment anymore. For a time, she was homeless.

“Everything happened all at once in my life,” Mincheff says. “I was at the age where there’s not a lot of options out there for you.” 

After Mincheff lost her home, she found her way to a shelter. The waiting list to get in to most affordable housing units in the county was more than 10 years long. But a counselor told her that because she was a low-income senior, she would be put on a slightly shorter list. Her wait was about four years. Eventually, there was an open unit at a new affordable complex called Toussin Senior Apartments.

Toussin is located in Kentfield, one of Marin’s most expensive towns. The complex is a little cluster of 13 apartment units. They’re painted sage green, Craftsmen style, and designed to blend in as well as they can with the multimillion-dollar homes in the hills just above it, further up a little leafy street. Mincheff says she’s discovered affordable housing projects like hers can carry a stigma in some parts of Marin.   

“That you’re gonna get low-life drug addict people,” she says. “I so sometimes want to stand up and yell and scream, you know, that’s not what comes here. You don’t understand.”

Mary Stompe is the CEO of the nonprofit, PEP Housing, that built Toussin Senior Apartments. She says it took 19 sources of funding to construct the 13 units.  The whole project cost $5.5 million to build. Funding came from a group of government agencies and grants and tax credits.

And each of these sources came with a different set of rules about what exactly their pot of money could be used to fund. 

“If you see my spread sheet,” Stompe says. “It is very large, and it can be mind blowing.”

Explore the cost of building affordable housing around California

Graphic by Tony Wagner | Data: The California Department of Housing and Community Development, the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, the California Housing Finance Agency and the California Debt Limit Allocation Committee

That’s why Stompe says she’s excited about the latest project she’s leading, planned for a former piece of dairy land in northern Marin County.  It is called Grady Ranch. 


At 200 units, it will be one of the biggest affordable housing complexes in Marin County. And it’s funded by one source: George Lucas. The filmmaker declined our request for an interview, but his spokesperson said that Lucas just wanted to do something nice for the people of Marin.

But not everyone in the county thinks his affordable housing project is such a nice idea. Read part two of this series here.

(Photos: Krissy Clark/Marketplace)

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