Novato residents blast county plan to buy hotel for homeless

Novato residents blasted Marin County’s proposal to buy a 70-room hotel to convert to homeless housing during a City Council meeting this week.

Some residents urged the city to file a lawsuit to stop it. The Novato City Council expressed some openness to at least exploring that option but first wanted to provide more time for the public to weigh in.

The strong response came just hours after the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to continue negotiations to purchase the Inn Marin and Suites at 250 Entrada Drive under an expedited timeline that would not include any vetting by the city.

“It’s been my experience that if we want to get folks on board they need a seat at the table, and unfortunately in this situation, no one had a seat much less a table to even sit at,” Councilwoman Susan Wernick said.

The purchase could be approved by the county as soon as Nov. 17, just weeks after the county notified Novato officials in mid-October of the potential sale.

“I’ve spent more time and consulted with more people deliberating the purchase of a new television set than apparently has gone into the purchase of this property,” Novato resident David Gall told the council. “This is a long-term permanent imposition on the city in response to a short-term problem.”

The swift sale is possible through the statewide Homekey program, which launched in July. The program provides $800 million in state grants to counties and cities to buy hotels and motels to eventually convert to permanent supportive housing for homeless residents affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The state law that created the program, AB 83, allows counties to skip local government reviews for these housing projects if they meet certain criteria.

Inn Marin and Suites is one of three sites that the county is considering buying, along with sites in Corte Madera and San Rafael. The property owners had expressed interest in selling the properties to the county as part of the Homekey program.

The Inn Marin property owner, 250 Entrada Drive LLC, is seeking $18 million, though a county appraisal could change the price. About two-thirds of the cost would be covered by Homekey grants, county officials said.

The county plans to operate the inn as transitional housing with on-site services for homeless families for the first year before converting it into permanent supportive housing.

While acknowledging the rapid timeline is not ideal, county planning manager Leelee Thomas said the state grants must be used before the end of the year and properties must be readied for occupancy within 30 days after the purchase.

“A property needed to be fairly ready to be occupied because you have a limited time between closing escrow and having people move in,” Thomas told the council.

The county was also not expecting to be able to purchase the Novato hotel until it was notified by the state on Oct. 10 that it received tentative approval for more grant funds.

The Novato City Council was not lacking in criticism and frustration about the project and expressed a willingness to at least discuss the option of filing a lawsuit if needed. A lawsuit wouldn’t be unprecedented. The city of Milpitas voted last month to challenge a Homekey project in court.

The Novato council voted unanimously Tuesday to work with the county to schedule a community workshop and a special council meeting in the coming weeks.

Mayor Pro Tem Pat Eklund requested that the county reimburse the city for lost hotel use tax and property tax revenues that would result from the sale. The city faces a multimillion-dollar deficit and recently laid off employees for the first time since the Great Recession. The city estimates it would lose about $320,000 per year in tax revenue if the sale is approved.

“We need to bring the community along and if you don’t have enough time in the process I think you need to stop it,” Eklund said to the county officials attending the meeting.

Councilman Eric Lucan called for the county to give Novato “more than just a seat at the table” should the project move forward and ensure the city has influence over the project as it develops.

More than 250 emails and letters were written to the city about the proposal and more than 150 people attended Tuesday’s council meeting — the largest attendance at a council meeting since at least March, according to City Manager Adam McGill.

Over three hours of discussion, most residents who spoke, including many from the Pointe Marin neighborhood near the hotel, disagreed with the project location and the county’s overstepping of normal review processes.

“I want to know what you’re going to do as far as security for all of the people that have multimillion homes less than 400 meters away from that site,” said Novato resident Brian Wolk. “How are you going to protect our homes? How are you going to protect our property values? How are you going to protect our cars? How are you going to protect our children?”

Other speakers, including county officials, said there is a need for permanent supportive housing that can reduce the costs on communities resulting from unhoused people and give them a greater chance of success.

Novato resident Rebekah Reali said she works as a social worker and knows what a difference it makes for someone to get an opportunity to be housed.

“This is a rare one,” she said. “I want to live in a community that supports all of our neighbors.”

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic and … these people are suffering,” said Arthur Hoefliger. “I can’t see how as a community we can’t accept these people and give them the funding they need.”

There has been no correlation between permanent supportive housing and a decrease in property values or an increase in calls for service, according to county homeless policy analyst Ashley Hart McIntyre. Providing permanent housing with services has proven effective in reducing chronic homelessness, she added. The county saw a 28% decrease in chronic homelessness in Marin between 2017 and 2019, which corresponded with a 150% increase in the county’s permanent supportive housing units, she said.

“We know from data nationwide as well as data locally that the more permanent supportive housing that we’re able to provide, the fewer people experiencing chronic homelessness will stay on our streets,” McIntyre said. “That’s absolutely of paramount importance during the pandemic when being unsheltered is a risk factor.”

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