Affordable Housing Strikes Back

Posted by Keli A. Tianga on April 30, 2015

George Lucas seems to be on a mission to be an affordable housing developer—or at least to use affordable housing to get back at his cranky neighbors.

The Star Wars creator recently filed a pre-application with the Marin County Community Development Agency, located in San Rafael, Calif., to build an affordable housing development on property he partially owns (he deeded the majority to the Marin County Open Space District over a decade ago) in Lucas Valley (not named for him). This comes on the heels of his proposal several years ago to build a new production studio on the same site, which his neighbors fought against until he withdrew it.

Lucas, backed by a group of developers and funders, then proposed an affordable housing development in 2012, but that project fizzled out. He is back, this time with the intention of funding the project himself.

So, is this the ultimate NIMBY payback, or actual altruism?

Because I am an optimistic conspiracy theorist, I like to think that Lucas never really intended to build his studio on the site at all, but used the proposal to “clear the path,” as it were, to this project, the one he really wants to execute, by giving neighbors a vision of something they'd like even less up front, so affordable housing, in a county notorious for being unaffordable, feels like a compromise. Could this be the new stealth anti-NIMBY strategy?

Now, common sense tells me this is probably not true, but this is a small victory for affordable housing nonetheless, as Lucas’ celebrity brings some attention to the issue. Especially in California, where all matter of housing, not just affordable, is expensive and out of reach for the average person.

Of course the affordabiltiy goals of the project are modest. According to the website of Petaluma Ecumenical Properties, the senior affordable housing developer that is partnered with Lucas on the project, the development would include 100 or so units for seniors at a variety of income levels and 120 units for people with annual incomes at 80 percent of the area’s average median income—which for Marin County would mean $65,700 to $101,400, clearly not what most of us think of as in need of affordable housing (though that may be changing and there are arguments about this). Indeed, the cover of Lucas's proposal uses the term “Work Force” housing, which we’ve taken issue with on Rooflines for its distinction between working people like teachers, police officers, and nurses, and “other” working people, namely, the working poor, some of whom presumably also work in Marin. In fact, in 2011, a report issued as an initiative of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California found that 60 percent of people who work in Marin commute in from outside the county, traveling farther on average than any other workforce in the Bay Area. Marin’s lack of affordable housing was cited as a primary cause, with two-thirds of Marin workers earning less than the $56,000 per year needed to afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

Still, in 2013, Marin County had the highest per capita income of any county in California according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and in 2009, the fifth highest income per capita in the nation, according to the Associated Press. So yes, these apartments would be considered affordable for some citizens of Marin County who may have trouble affording other housing in the county, but arguably not the ones who may stand to benefit the most. I’d be interested to know how this income criteria was decided upon, and if there was any effort on Mr. Lucas’ part to include lower income earners.

Called Grady Ranch for now, the development would be sited in a way so as to not be visible to the road, located less than three miles from a major highway, and have its own bus stop. It would also include a community center, pool, and an orchard and small farm. The next steps are submission of a detailed proposal from PEP, then what Marin County describes as an “extensive” review and public involvement process, and then presentation of the proposal to the county’s Board of Supervisors.

Could this be a catalyst in the creation of a new form of mixed-income housing—wealthy celebrities self-funding the development of affordable housing units on their own, highly valuable property with verdant views and fresh air? We’ll be paying attention to see how this unfolds and if Lucas is able to get the project approved and underway.

Even if he doesn’t, the story would make a good movie, and we have a great suggestion for a producer. May The Force be with affordable housing.

(Photo credit: Surrey County Council News via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

About the author more »

Keli A. Tianga is associate editor of Shelterforce magazine. Email Keli at Keli@nhi.org

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