When Bobbi Loeb, 81, moved into her house in a scenic rural area 40 miles north of San Francisco half a century ago, her neighbors were mostly cattle ranchers. “My son had a hard time in school because he was considered a hippie,” she says.
Now the area is home to Silicon Valley transplants and Loeb’s property is worth over $1 million.
Loeb, who lives on Social Security benefits and limited rental income from two separate units on her property, was facing a dilemma last year. She couldn’t afford to maintain the buildings, which needed roof and septic repairs, but couldn’t bear the thought of increasing rent on her tenants or moving.
“I just couldn’t do it,” she says about charging market rates for her rentals. “It was just so bizarre to be a landlady after all my experiences as a renter.”
She found a middle ground with the Community Land Trust of West Marin (CLAM), an organization whose mission is to ensure that Marin County remains affordable for low and middle-income residents.
This year, Loeb sold her property to CLAM for half its market value. She’s the first participant of the trust’s age-in-place initiative, which lets longtime homeowners stay in their homes while the trust takes over their upkeep.
When Loeb dies, CLAM will turn the property into affordable housing units, helping to mitigate the housing crisis affecting the Bay Area. “There will be three affordable units,” says Loeb. “That makes me feel happy.”
Loeb says that aging in place is a big deal when you’ve lived in a community as long as she has. She remembers people asking her why she didn’t just sell the property for what it was worth. “And where would I live?” was her response. “I would have to leave here.”
Loeb says her roots are deep in the community: “I know so many people, and so many people know me.” She remembers going to the post office recently with her 6-year-old grandson and him turning to her after noticing her greet everyone she passed. “He said, ‘You must know everybody,’” she says. “And I do.”
When CLAM acquires a property, the organization can decide to either sell or rent it as affordable housing, according to Pam Dorr, the trust’s executive director. CLAM currently houses 66 people and owns 18 rental units.
The organization has also coordinated two home ownerships. “The properties stay permanently affordable, and the land under the homes is retained in perpetuity by the land trust, so it’s community-controlled housing,” says Dorr.
West Marin started to change soon after Loeb bought her house. She remembers wondering: “God, I don’t know how we’re going to make this mortgage,” and her real estate broker assuring her that in only a few years the payments would be the same as monthly rent in the area. Sure enough, he was right, and prices have only continued to rise.
Loeb’s decision to sell was just as helpful for CLAM as it was for her. “It’s a very challenging environment to create affordable housing and to acquire properties,” says Ruth Lopez, CLAM’s program director, about Marin County’s real estate market. “We can’t buy properties at market rate and turn them into affordable housing projects.”
She says that since Loeb sold her house to CLAM, the trust has seen interest from other older members of the community in its age-in-place initiative.
Dorr says the initiative has strong community support. “Lots of folks who live in the community want to make sure essential workers, teachers, and people who work at the bakery can stay living where they work,” she says.
A community land trust, says Dorr, is a more flexible model of affordable housing than the more common model built using low-income tax credits, which subsidize the acquisition, construction, and renovation of affordable rentals. “[That model] takes a long time and really excludes the local community in making decisions about how the housing is managed,” she says, adding that only qualified developers can develop that model of housing.
Affordable housing built using low-income tax credits also often come with minimum unit requirements. “And in rural areas, you’re typically not going to have that type of density,” says Dorr.
CLAM’s approach to affordable housing, and specifically its age-in-place initiative, also involves a philosophical shift in thinking about community development. “It’s a pivot away from how much can I get and what’s best for me to what’s best for my community,” says Lopez. “That shift in thinking is what will mitigate the housing crisis.”
Bobbi says it’s the sense of community that has led her to stay in Marin County all these years. Decades ago, a boiler exploded in one of the units on the property, burning her ex-husband and young daughter as the unit burned down. While they spent several weeks in the hospital, the entire community worked together to rebuild the unit before they returned.
She says that hasn’t changed. “People help each other here, says Loeb. “They look out for each other here. It’s just a wonderful community.”