Marin Struggles to Meet Fair Housing Laws
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Ever since President Obama took over the White House, his Housing and Urban Development administration -- or HUD -- has been looking at how to increase enforcement of the nation's Fair Housing Laws. That includes evaluating whether cities and counties are working hard enough to include people of color and other protected classes in their housing plans.
HUD has cracked down on Westchester County, north of New York City, for failing to do this, following a lawsuit by housing advocates. Now, a recent audit is focusing attention on the nearly all-white county of Marin, on California's Northern coast.
While the approach is controversial with some who argue the government shouldn't be forcing integration, many community organizers in Marin are welcoming the scrutiny.
County Supervisor Judy Arnold learned back in March that the county had entered a Voluntary Compliance Agreement with HUD. A routine audit showed the county wasn't following fair housing and civil rights laws.
"The first reaction from many people," says Arnold, "was, 'what do you mean they've come in? Seventy-three percent of this county voted for Barack Obama, one of the most liberal counties in the United States!'"
But HUD's message was pretty clear: Marin County is 80 percent white and two of its minority populations are concentrated geographically. Their review (PDF) found almost half of Latinos in Marin County live in San Rafael's Canal area -- 70 percent live within two square miles. In Marin City, a historic ship-building town, blacks make up 46 percent of the population.
On top of that, one of the county's key fair housing documents -- an Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice (PDF) -- is supposed to get refreshed every five years. It hadn't been updated since 1994.
Arnold says HUD's findings highlight a sense of complacency in the county. Community activist Rafael Durr says the attention feels long overdue.
Durr is African-American and has lived in Marin since 2000. "We're dealing with some folks that don't understand, that are kind of way out of the economic sights of low-income and people of color," he says.
"Like kind of any other wealthy area, they basically would like to have everyone surrounding them in somewhat of the same economic situation," says Durr. "Yet they still have a lot of people who come in and clean for them. And the people who come in and do it for them have to leave and go way out to live."
The fair housing laws provide protection against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, disability and the presence of children. Durr suggests it's not just some members of the protected class who can't afford to live in Marin. The county's high housing costs put it well out of reach of many working-class people.
Statistics show a minimum wage worker in California would have to work 130 hours a week in order to afford a median priced two-bedroom rental in Marin. According to a report (PDF) by The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, thousands of low-wage workers commute into the county each day.
Still, the focus of HUD's inquiry is a lack of housing opportunities for members of the protected class. And the compliance agreement that the county signed with HUD means Marin has to deal with some of these issues head on. Supervisor Arnold created a committee of elected officials and called a series of public hearings. She says she was hurt by some of what was said in the beginning.
"At the very first meeting that we had, there were charges of racism," Arnold says. "So we started out, I think the many of the elected [officials here] felt defensive and [members of the protected classes] felt they were unheard and so it was a pretty raucous meeting."
Arnold says eventually the gatherings became calmer. The committee's elected officials began hearing from people in the audience about barriers to fair housing: poor public transit, a lack of voice in the political process and zoning obstacles to affordable housing.
Community activist Durr says by the end of the months-long process, committee members seemed to have learned something.
"I think they're doing better than they've done before and that's different," he says.
Marin County now has an implementation plan (PDF) to show the federal government. It includes putting minorities and low-income residents on the committee that makes community development grant decisions. It also would streamline rezoning for some affordable housing, increase diversity training for county staff and improve public transportation.
"We're going to reach out through existing organizations in the Canal, in Marin City to say for new residents, come here, here's the information," says Arnold. "We're going to have coffees. We're going to welcome them. Give them bus schedules for transportation schedules."
HUD's oversight of the county is antagonizing some residents, who don't think the government should be involved in policies influencing where people can and can't live.
Dick Spotswood, a political columnist for the Marin Independent-Journal, thinks Marin should just refuse HUD's money, which comes to a little less than $3 million a year.
"Thanks but no thanks," he says. "We are going to follow state and federal laws but we're not going to collapse simply because some bureaucrats don't like the racial composition of the county."
Spotswood says he supports the principal of fair housing, but he doesn't want people recruited to Marin by federal policy. He says people should earn their way to where they want to live.
"I can't afford to live in Belvedere, I can afford to live in another part of Marin County," he says. "And well, maybe that's because of how you're raised: background, luck, but that's life, that's life in America. I don't think it's HUD's job to say otherwise and I don't think it's the duty or role of the board of supervisors to say, 'got it, we'll do what you say.'"
HUD's Assistant Secretary for fair housing John Trasviña says it is HUD's job to make sure jurisdictions use their funds to break down segregation and improve opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities, as well as people with disabilities and families with children. He says you need to go back to 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was implemented to correct decades of disenfranchisement.
"After all, when President Johnson enacted the Fair Housing Act into law, it was a week after the assassination of Dr. King," Trasviña says. "It was the number one national statement to bring the nation together and bring the nation forward. And it's not just about southern states, it's not just about certain parts of the country. It is everywhere."
Trasviña says HUD will introduce a new rule by the end of year to help increase enforcement. He says the rule will give jurisdictions training on what the agency is looking for when it comes to affirmatively furthering fair housing.
The new rule will also ensure jurisdictions get maps and data about its protected class residents. Trasviña says the data will include information about where the protected classes live, school enrollment patterns, unemployment figures and poverty rates.
The data system will likely be welcome news to Roy Bateman. He is the community development coordinator for Marin County Community Development Agency, which distributes HUD funds.
"It sounds like it's really easy to keep records on the demographics on people moving into new affordable housing projects," he says. "But someone has to ask the questions, collect the data, fill out the spreadsheets and analyze the information."
He says staff and funds are tight in the one-and-a-half person office, making it hard to complete some of the paperwork HUD requires. And budget cuts make it worse every year.
Bateman has been working with Arnold's committee to help draft the implementation plan. He says they've tried to include things that they can put in place without much additional funding.
"Some will involve shifts of funding that we already have available and some things will involve additional funding," Bateman says.
That possible need for additional funding hasn't escaped some cities. Before the county approved the implementation plan, the Corte Madera Town Council lodged a letter with the Board of Supervisors saying "there is no language that protects the cities from County imposed unfunded mandates that are part of the plan."
Among other things, the Corte Madera Town Council singled out the cost of supporting the planned welcoming committees, workshops on recruitment of minorities for county commissions and measures to streamline affordable housing construction.
Arnold says whether or not Marin's city governments will get on board with its plan and policy changes is the next test. While the county oversees the distribution of the grants and is responsible to HUD for the audit, most development potential is within the incorporated cities and towns. Arnold says those cities risk losing the federal housing dollars if they don't become a part of the effort."
HUD is currently reviewing Marin County's action plan. It will be up to the regional HUD office to approve it, or ask Marin to make further changes.