The Flawed Concept of “Workforce Housing”

Listening to the Marin County Supervisors we would be led to believe there is no higher priority than to provide “workforce housing“.

Supervisor Kate Sears

Supervisor Kate Sears

“We can reduce the impacts of in-commuting by…building workforce housing would enable people working in Marin to live closer to their jobs.” Supervisor Sears, Feb 21st 2014 Facebook page

“It’s important that we build healthy and sustainable communities by allowing those who work in Marin to also live here,”  Supervisor Arnold, Sept 2011

“To increase the stock of affordable housing, especially workforce housing, the Marin
County Board of Supervisors enacted the Affordable Housing Impact Fee.”
This is a $5 or a $10 per square foot fee imposed on new builds and remodels. An existing 1,800 square foot house with a 700 square foot addition or conversion will be assessed $2,500. Source.

The concept of providing workforce housing underpins stated policy not just from Marin County Supervisors but also the Association of Bay Area Governments’ Plan Bay Area:

Plan Bay Area references "workforce housing"

Plan Bay Area references “workforce housing”

“The job growth forecast was adjusted based on the difficulties in supplying sufficient housing in the Bay Area to meet the needs of workforce housing within reasonable commute times. ”
Source: Plan Bay Area, page 15, Employment Forecast

Workforce Housing – The Premise & Alleged Benefits

The concept presumes that by building affordable housing in a county:

  • more county workers who used to live outside the county will be able to live in the county
  • traffic congestion will be reduced
  • greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced.

A quick Google search constrained to the Marin County website references the term “workforce housing” in 340 separate documents. The same term appears in 160 documents on the Association of Bay Area Governments website. Restated the premise of workforce housing is woven deeply into planning and policy across the region. It is frequently used to justify housing projects.

The Theory and the Facts

If the premise of workforce housing reduces in commuting then one would expect to see a substantial increase between these two numbers:

  • Affordable housing residents who work in the county but who previously lived outside the county and had to commute in
  • Affordable housing residents who now live and work in the county, who no longer have to commute into the county

To make the case there should be a measurable and not insignificant increase between the former and the latter.

In 2008 Marin County published a document “Affordable Housing Inventory“. The stated purpose of the document was to create a single data source for information on affordable housing in Marin establishing a platform for future tracking and analysis of affordable housing in Marin County.

On page 4 the document states:

” approximately 90% of [affordable housing residents] lived and worked in Marin prior to living in affordable housing

Then on page 32 the same document states:

“The current employment location of working [affordable housing] residents was provided for 606 individuals. Of this sample, 91% work in Marin County.”

If workforce housing as a premise was valid one would expect to see an order of magnitude between these two numbers. Instead there is an increase of 1% – which is within the margin of error.

One might presume that affordable housing can be made available selectively only to people who work in the county – but this is not legal.

What Does This Mean?

This language is presented as if it is an indisputable fact. Yet in Marin the evidence shows that there is no  basis validating the workforce housing concept – but  there is evidence that no relationship exists. Therefore we should expect to see the following actions:

  • The term workforce housing should no longer be used by elected officials
  • The term should be dropped from all policy documents
  • If the term is used in media such as the Marin IJ the term be immediately called out as being disproven to discourage future usage

This does not mean that there should not be more affordable housing. What it does mean that we need to discard dishonest, disproven and consequently misleading concepts from the discussion.

Affordable Housing

Note that this does not mean that Marin County, or any other location should no longer provide affordable housing. The county has excellent policies requiring that new developments include 20% affordable units. Sadly many developments, such as MacFarlane’s Tamal Vista, were able to circumvent these requirements. Marin needs to uphold these well founded policies.

Marin does need to grow – but not with large concentrations of housing. Instead the county should continue it’s policy of integrating affordable units into all new developments.