Sausalito confronts historic inequities regarding affordable housing

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For 32 years the Bay Area city of Sausalito has used strict zoning restrictions to protect its scrappy industrial waterfront, banning both housing and offices in the 225-acre Marinship district, which stretches for about a mile north of downtown.

And, for the most part, it's worked. Instead of expensive condos and trinket-filled tourist shops, Marinship remains a place where vessels are hauled out and repaired, houseboats built, sails sewn and outboard motors tuned up. Hundreds of maritime workers and artists live and toil on the water, a world apart from the glass towers visible across the bay.

But with the Black Lives Matter movement forcing cities to confront historic racial, social and economic inequality, Sausalito officials are debating whether some land in Marinship might be appropriate for low-income or senior housing. In July, during a contentious, eight-hour meeting that focused on both racial justice and a new, 20-year general plan — a state-mandated document meant to guide development — the City Council voted 4-1 to erase language that barred land-based housing there.

At the meeting Vice Mayor Ray Withy said that "we cannot hope to increase diversity in Sausalito if you don't increase the diversity of available housing for a multitude of income levels."

Mayor Susan Cleveland-Knowles agreed, saying, "We are an overwhelmingly white community" and that opening select sites to housing "is the only way we can increase diversity in our town."

The conflict between preserving light industry and meeting the need for housing has played out across the Bay Area, from San Francisco's central waterfront to West Oakland to South San Francisco. Supporters of zoning restrictions say prohibiting residential and office development preserves often well-paying blue collar jobs and ensures a diverse economic base. Housing advocates say opposition to residential development will continue to drive up prices and force thousands of workers to relocate.

On the website of the Sausalito Working Waterfront Coalition, which advocates for "those whose livelihoods are linked to the Marinship," Bob Silvestri lashed out at consultants working on the general plan, saying the vision laid out "a predictable, banal, soulless celebration of consumerism, bereft of character or sense of place."

Coalition members say current Marinship protections are not just about preserving the city's maritime legacy but about supporting its economic future. The area has a strong base of manufacturers, something that became apparent during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when two Marinship compaies — Universal Sonar Mount and Starbuck Canvas Works — collaborated to quickly manufacture 1,300 plastic face shields that were donated to first responders.

To Planning Commissioner Janelle Kellman, the collaboration showed that the Marinship is vital as a center of industry and that the city should seek to encourage the growth of those companies rather than replace them with housing.

Marinship, she said, "has a history of contributing to the safety and security of our nation."

Sausalito resident John DiMe, a retired engineer, said that instead of relaxing the zoning to allow for residential development, the city should expand the district's light industrial space, which generates about 41% of the city's business taxes. He said the new general plan should seek to convert some of the office space allowed in the 1970s and '80s to arts and light industry.

"People in the Marinship are welcoming of change if that change is reducing office uses," he said. "What is going on down here is so special, up and down the Marinship. The working waterfront is booming. It has never been busier."

But the question of who is benefiting from the busy Sausalito waterfront is especially charged, given its history as a jobs center for Black Americans during World War II. More than 2,200 Black workers, mostly transplants from the South, migrated to Marin County during the war, working to pump out 92 cargo ships in about five years. But while Blacks were allowed to work alongside whites in Sausalito, they were barred from buying or renting property there, and instead were housed in Marin City, an unincorporated area a mile northwest of the shipyards.

Today, Marin City remains poor and isolated from Sausalito and the rest of Marin County, economically, geographically and racially. Marin City is 40% Black, 13% Latino and 7% other minority groups, and about 40% white. Its median household income of just under $43,000 is less than half the county's median. Sausalito, by contrast, is 92% white and just 1.5% black. Its median household income is $110,000.

Marin City — physically cut off from Sausalito by U.S. Highway 101 — has four major affordable housing complexes, including 300 units at Golden Gate Village, 225 at Ridgeway Apartments and 56 at Ponderosa Estates. Sausalito has just 38 units of affordable senior housing.

Paul Austin, who runs Play Marin, a Marin City nonprofit dedicated to bringing kids of different racial and economic background together, said that allowing some affordable housing in the Marinship flatlands "would do wonders for the entire ZIP code" by integrating schools and creating housing opportunities for teachers and nurses who can't currently afford to stay in Marin County.

He said that he welcomes the racial justice discussion Sausalito City Council has embarked on, but that "we have to put the onus back on the residents in Sausalito" to make sure the debate is followed by action.

"If it gets shot down, it would show me that Sausalito is very much a place where people say the right things about diversity and inclusion, but when it comes to their own backyard, it's a different matter," Austin said. "If they vote yes, that will show me that they are ready to set a higher standard for justice and equity."

Pastor Marcus Small, who leads Peoples Inter-Cities Fellowship in Marin City, said many in his congregation have been forced to move to Vallejo, Sacramento or Vacaville because Marin is so expensive. Sausalito homes average $1.5 million, according to Zillow, and an average two-bedroom apartment rents for $4,000.

"As American citizens, Black folks should have the right to live wherever, and that includes Sausalito," Small said. "And that would require some more affordable housing."

If some housing is allowed in the Marinship, the question of where exactly it would go is sure to be controversial. The city's traditional hillside neighborhoods are largely built-out and the flatlands that stretch along the waterfront represent some of the only large parcels on which new housing could be constructed.

Others point to several office complexes that were built in the 1980s, before the 1988 Marinship plan banned new offices. One of these properties is Marina Office Plaza, an 86,000-square-foot facility. Property owner Brenda Berg would like to explore converting the land to senior housing, a need she discovered firsthand a few years ago when her husband developed Lewy body dementia and had to be placed in an assisted living facility in Santa Rosa.

Sausalito has an unusually large senior population — 37% of residents are over 60 — and replacing an office building with senior housing would not interfere with maritime or arts uses, the Bergs argue.

"Nobody wants to replace the arts or light industry or maritime, nobody is saying, 'Let's build a gleaming condo tower 150 feet tall,'" said Carlo Berg, who manages the property with his mother. "You can't have an age-friendly city if you don't have age-friendly land-use policy and won't even consider housing."

Meanwhile, the debate over whether Sausalito will open up some of its flatlands for housing will be decided this fall as the general plan goes before the Planning Commission in September and the City Council in October.

At the July City Council meeting, Mayor Cleveland-Knowles acknowledged that it would be a tough political fight.

"I have met a lot of resistance in town and continue to meet a lot of resistance in town to expanding our housing opportunities," she said.

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Affordable housing Housing affordability Racial Bias California Multifamily