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The South Eliseo Drive homeless housing proposal and the public’s right to know

Since it was first announced, the proposal to purchase and transform the vacant, former nursing facility property at 1251 South Eliseo Drive in Larkspur into a homeless housing project has been surrounded by controversy. In large part, this has been due to confusing and misleading messaging coming from Marin County staff, third-party public relations consultants, representatives of Episcopal Community Services (ECS), the project’s grants applicant, and positions taken by the Marin Board of Supervisors and Supervisor Katie Rice, in particular.

The project, which is dependent upon ECS receiving a “Homekey” grant from the State of California (which Marin County has already applied for) and a gift of approximately $12.9 million in Marin County taxpayer funds, is on the eve of being approved by the Board of Supervisors. So, it’s time to examine the facts and circumstances.

First, please consider the following:

In writing this article, I reached out to ECS for their comment, identifying myself as the editor of the Marin Post, working on a publication deadline. Surprisingly, they had “no comment” on questions I asked and directed me to their third-party, public affairs consultant, Ground Floor Public Affairs. (GF) Subsequently, I spoke with a representative at Ground Floor. I asked about the Homekey program and its requirements, regulations, tenant screening procedures, facility operations, management, enforcement of rules, monitoring methods, and general questions about information and statements found in the project’s marketing materials and on the project’s website.

The Ground Floor representative I spoke with was cordial but could not / would not answer any of the questions I asked, including the simplest questions about statements found on the project’s website, which Ground Floor claims to have helped create and which the County is directing residents to review. They suggested that I submit my questions in writing and “someone” would get back to me. As to who or when that would happen, they could not say.

This experience is consistent with the complaints I’ve received for months from dozens of residents who have tried to get answers about the South Eliseo Drive Homekey Project.

The Basics

According to the “Homekey” program website, Homekey is a

“…statewide effort to sustain and rapidly expand housing for persons experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness, and who are, thereby, inherently impacted by COVID-19 and other communicable diseases.”

“Administered by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), approximately $1.4 billion (FY 2021-22) in grant funding will be made available to local public entities, including cities, counties, or other local public entities, such as housing authorities or Tribal Entities within California.

“Homekey is an opportunity for state, regional, and local public entities to develop a broad range of housing types, including but not limited to hotels, motels, hostels, single-family homes and multifamily apartments, adult residential facilities, and manufactured housing, and to convert commercial properties and other existing buildings to Permanent or Interim Housing for the Target Population.”

In the summer of 2021, Marin County began considering a proposal to purchase the building at 1251 South Eliseo Drive in Larkspur, with the intention of gifting it to a homeless housing organization called Episcopal Community Services (ECS). The proposal is for the County to provide approximately $12.9 million in cash subsidy to ECS and Homekey grants funding from the state to redevelop the property for a homeless housing facility (Homekey funding was applied for in October 2021). ECS will own the facility and contract out management to another third-party entity, at this time unnamed.

Different from homeless “shelters,” ECS specializes in homeless permanent housing where qualified tenants sign leases to apartments and are required to pay 30 percent of the rental costs (similar to federally funded, very low income. Section 8 housing programs). The Marin County Coordinated Entry System, run by the Marin Housing Authority, initially compiles the list of potential tenants for each type of facility in the County.

The site in question is located directly on a state-designed “Safe Route to School” and is 0.8 miles from 8 schools with 4,800+ preschool and K-12 children walking/biking to and from school daily. It is contiguous to Hamilton Park, which is the border between the large residential community to the north and east and the property, and it’s in close proximity to Hal Brown Park & Playground, which serves as the unofficial Town Center for Greenbrae and Kentfield.


This considered, significant concerns and unanswered questions remain about exactly who qualifies to live at the project, what kinds of programs are available, what the qualifications are to continue to live there, and how the community is safeguarded from the potential negative consequences of placing such a facility in this location.

The clock is ticking

The decision regarding approval of the Homekey grant and the finalization of the County’s commitment to the project is imminent. According to Andrew Hening, a public agency consultant working with Marin County and ECS, as of January 28th,

“We have not heard back from the State about whether or not the project has been awarded funding, but we expect to be notified in early to mid-February. If the project does receive funding, a Board of Supervisors hearing will be scheduled to vote on accepting the grant. Given the State’s timing, we are expecting this to be agendized for the 2/15 Board of Supervisors meeting.”

If anyone has anything to say about this project, speak now or forever hold your peace.

The project’s opposition

Over 2,000 local residents have expressed their concern that the proposal is not suitable at the proposed location and is a half-baked solution being rushed through to meet a grant funding deadline without giving sufficient thought to the long-term consequences and potentially negative, unintended consequences. Their concerns are simple and reasonable.

The majority of the residents I’ve interviewed fully acknowledge the importance of addressing the homeless housing crisis in California and support homeless housing for Marin families and Marin individuals in need. However, the profile of the tenants that qualify to live at the South Eliseo Drive facility is not what the public was originally led to believe when the project was first announced and the consequences of that are significant. Further, there are insufficient, public safeguards available to move forward with the South Eliseo Drive proposal.

The County claims they cannot change anything about the project, which is based on the requirements of the Homekey grants program, that this grant funding opportunity is a take it or leave it situation, and the desperate need for homeless housing rises above all other concerns. In my opinion, considering all the facts and circumstances, these assertions are questionable. If the proposal doesn’t address the legitimate concerns of the community, then perhaps the “opportunity” should be disregarded.

The County’s pre-emptive marketing campaign

Beginning in the early fall of 2021, county staff members, joined by ECS staff and public relations consultants went into overdrive promoting the project to a list of stakeholders. Their team included ECS executives, Ken Shapiro, Chief Assistant Director and COO of Marin Health and Human Services, (HHS) Ashley Hart McIntyre, Homeless Policy Manager at Marin HHS, Nancy Vernon, Legislative Aide to Supervisor Katie Rice of the Marin County Board of Supervisors District 2, Christina Alvarez, senior director of development at ECS, Helene Onaga, executive administrator at ECS, Zak Franet of Ground Floor Public Affairs, (A public relations firm in San Francisco that specializes in “building winning partnerships between government, business, and community”) and Andrew Hening, a government agency consultant.

This team quickly and methodically and, from the tone of their email exchanges, giddily worked their way through major Marin County institutions like Tam Union High School District, Redwood High, College of Marin, Marin Catholic, Kentfield Schools, Safe Routes to Schools, and others, winning endorsements and support from as many of these institutions as they could before engaging the general public in any meaningful way.

Their efforts did result in support from Tam Union and homeless housing organizations, but there was and is strong opposition from Kentfield Schools (which the project’s website incorrectly still lists as a supporter), a non-commitment from Safe Routes to School (“As a project of the Transportation Authority of Marin, we need to remain neutral of this issue. ~ Wendi Kallins), and lackadaisical endorsement from others. But in their minds, they won enough backing to forward.

However, one needs to ask, what was the story they were telling to gain endorsement? We don't know what transpired in their private meetings but what we do know is that the public messaging about the project changed over time, as more and more residents began to ask questions.

Just today, I received yet another promotional email, this time from a group called “Housing First,” promoting the importance of approving the Eliseo Drive project. Their email is filled with boilerplate information about the homeless crisis in our state, all of which is true-we do have a serious homeless problem in California. However, none of it discusses the unique facts and circumstances of the Eliseo project. In fact, the only specific reference in the email about the project states,

“The services will include intensive case management, behavioral health services, workforce development and benefits assistance. There will be 24/7 front desk staff and property management on site. There will also be a safety team to be the eyes and ears outside the facility in order to prevent any issues before they arise.”

This text is lifted from the ECS marketing team’s website. However, this is simply not accurate. It fails to mention that the services provided are strictly voluntary on the tenant’s part and there is no guarantee that the “safety team” program referred to will ever be funded or operational (its funding is separate from the redevelopment and operational costs of the facility). And the email notice completely omits important explanations about the tenant profile this project is targeted for; chronically homeless individuals with what the Homekey program considers to be “disabilities.”

Full disclosure: The public’s right to know

The public notices and flyers that were available to the public in early October of 2021, at the start of the project’s marketing blitz, simply stated,

“The property would be operated by ECS [Episcopal Community Services] as a 43 to 50-unit Permanent Supportive Housing facility for single adults experiencing homelessness.” [Emphasis added]

There were no details provided about what “single adults experiencing homelessness” meant. However, since it sounded fairly benign, residents were not immediately alarmed and one could assume that some of the agencies that endorsed the project early on, based on the marketing materials available, may have had the same impression. But as the public began to ask questions, a variety of ever-changing explanations emerged. These included, “The project will be for seniors,” “The project will be for homeless Marin families,” and “The project will be for “chronically homeless Marin residents.”

By early December of 2021, it became obvious that none of these explanations were entirely accurate. For example, families will not be allowed to apply.

Similarly, the project’s official website claims that the project serves “Neighbors Experiencing Homelessness in Marin County,” [Emphasis added] intentionally giving the impression that this facility is being built to serve Marin residents—a false claim. As with any other federal or state-funded housing program, a tenancy cannot be denied to qualified applicants no matter where they live. And because facilities such as this are extremely rare and in high demand, applicants will likely be referred to the Eliseo project by agencies throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.

What we now know is that this project is specifically designed for individuals who were classified as “chronically homeless.” To qualify for a rental unit, the prospective tenant has to suffer from some type of “disability.” The qualifying disabilities include “physical, mental, and developmental.” Considering each of these categories of need, we should examine how the proposed facility might serve each group.

Those with physical disabilities can certainly be housed in many types of accommodations, so long as the disabilities don’t require special equipment, special handicapped access, or professional, on-site skilled care/physical therapy, none of which will be available at the South Eliseo Drive facility.

Similarly, those with developmental disabilities (e.g., autism, etc.) are allowed to live at the facility but since these conditions require specialized, skilled staff they are better served by other government-funded programs (such as the Lifehouse Agency) that provide 24/7 oversight / assistance, chaperoned trips outside the facility, and other such support services not available under the Homekey program.

This leaves the third category; those suffering from mental illness, drug use, alcoholism, and other types of substance abuse, sex offenders, or other such conditions. The lack of specialized accommodations and services at the S. Eliseo Drive facility to properly care for those with significant physical and developmental disabilities means that this last category of tenants will likely make up the majority of those who live there. (Note that the Homekey program does not allow the operator to limit the percentage of any one type of tenant)

This is a far cry from simply being housing for “single adults experiencing homelessness.” However, the materials provided by ECS profess that there are safeguards related to tenant eligibility. For example, it states,

“Those who have been determined to be eligible for this program would then be further screened as persons who are subject to a lifetime registration requirement under a sex offender registration program or have been convicted of a serious violent or drug-related felony in the last three years would not be eligible for this program.”

This statement is extremely misleading. What ECS and the County are not telling the public is that by this definition, ineligibility of sex offenders only applies to “Tier 3” sex offenders. The sex offender registration system consists of three tiers, classified by severity. So, the stated prohibition only applies to the highest category of felony offenders.

Consider that,

Tier 1 sex offenders are eligible to live at 1251 South Eliseo. They are required to register for a minimum of 10 years and include those convicted of misdemeanor sex offenses or certain, so-called, non-violent sex offenses, such as sexual battery, enticing a child into prostitution, forced sodomy, arranging to meet a minor for lewd purposes, indecent exposure, and similar offenses.

Tier 2 sex offenders are eligible to live at 1251 South Eliseo. They are required to register for a minimum of 20 years and include those convicted of mid-level sex offenses, such as incest, rape when the victim is at least 18 but incapable of giving consent due to a mental disorder or developmental or physical disability, sodomy with a minor under 14 years of age, lewd acts with a minor, oral copulation with a minor under 14 years of age, acts of penetration with a foreign object when the victim is a minor or incapable of giving consent, and similar offenses.

Tier 3 sex offenders are the only applicants who are not eligible to live at 1251 South Eliseo. This tier of individuals is required to have lifetime registration and includes the most serious sex offenders, including those convicted of violent rapist, sex trafficking of minors, sex crimes against children 10 and younger, and those who have committed repeated, serious sex crimes.

The rest of the terminology in the ECS disclaimer is also vague. What exactly is “serious violent” crime as opposed to a run-of-the-mill violent crime? By what standard is that determined and by whom? What is a drug “related” felony? Does it mean having been arrested ten years ago for smoking a joint or arrested for being a major drug dealer? And again, who determines that and how? Can we assume, for example, that a felon with a record of less than “serious” violence qualifies for an apartment? Or, does a drug dealer who has never been arrested or convicted get a free pass? And what happens if he is caught and arrested, while living there? The answer to that might surprise you.

These are the questions that I tried to get answered in my calls to ECS and Ground Floor.

As it stands, according to state rental law, the program’s regulations, and County and ESC’s presentation materials from January 18, 2022, regarding the operational rules for the facility, there will be:

The ECS informational materials explain that to have such rules or restrictions would violate the tenant’s rights under California law. South Eliseo tenants will have the same rental rights as any other renter in the state. So, the answer to the question about what happens to the drug dealer who gets arrested is they have the same rights as any other renter, which means so long as their rent is paid, even if they are convicted and incarcerated, they cannot lose their lease. ECS is also not allowed to impose any additional penalties for infractions or criminal activity in or outside the facility, other than the normal, legal means available to any landlord in California, which are typically few, and even when feasible, result in a long and drawn-out process.

But the facility's operations also seem problematic in other ways. The project’s success is based on the philosophy ECS brings to it. As their website explains,

“Experiencing homelessness can be both the cause and effect of health issues, including emotional and mental health. We cannot solve these issues without solving housing first.”

Certainly, it's true that food and shelter are fundamental to re-establishing one’s sense of self-respect, but there is no evidence that housing itself will cure substance abuse, tendencies toward violence, or criminal behavior.[2] After all, there is no lack of rich, well-housed substance abusers, violent personalities, and criminals in this world. And certainly one can argue that a COVID vaccination is just as essential right now as a roof over one’s head.

But the operation’s unscientific philosophy regarding medical and psychiatric pathologies goes even further. Regarding alcoholism and substance abuse, the informational materials state,

“Among those who struggle with substance abuse, there is not one common way to measure success. For some, the goal is sobriety. For others, it is regaining control of their lives, or using drugs less frequently. For many, their goals change over time.”

Really? When did overcoming alcoholism ever not include sobriety as a prerequisite? When did overcoming drug addiction ever not include abstinence? As someone who grew up in a household with an alcoholic parent, I can assure ECS and the County that enabling alcoholics only feeds their addiction and increases the consequences for those around them. After all, if individuals suffering from substance abuse were capable of setting goals and making good choices for themselves, they wouldn't be suffering from substance abuse in the first place. Substance abusers and those prone to violence need real help, even if they are in denial about it. Certainly, one can't force an individual to seek help, but at the same time, one doesn't have to enable their behavior by rewarding them with housing, without being required to take responsibility from their actions.

The County, for its part, has also refused to commit to any kind of Zero Tolerance Policy regarding criminal activity, violence, sexual offenses, illegal drug use, or loitering resulting from this project. And to the best of my knowledge, there has been no coordination with or support from local law enforcement agencies, Marin General Hospital, emergency responder services, local homeowners’ associations, local businesses, Parks and Recreation Departments, or neighboring cities. This support, particularly from law enforcement, will be critical to the successful operation of the South Eliseo Drive facility.[3]

ECS claims that it will provide “monitoring” of tenant behavior and actions outside the facility, in the community. They claim this effort will create a “Community Service Safety Team (the CSST) that will be the “eyes and ears for the community” and provide outside security to “deescalate issues,” and its team members will wear “clearly marked uniforms,” to be a “robust community presence.” However, what they don’t disclose is that the CSST will have no enforcement capabilities and that these services are not guaranteed to be provided because the funding for it is entirely separate from the purchase and renovation funding under Project Homekey, and that funding is not in place.

ECS knows that providing the CSST is discretionary under the Homekey program and contends that they are not in any way legally liable for any of the actions of their tenants on or off of the property. That, they say, is the responsibility of the police or other city agencies just as it is for any other multi-unit housing project. So if, for example, a tenant is a drug user or COVID positive or a sex offender or prone to violence, ECS’s position is that any costs and negative outcomes of that fall on local city and county services, which are already understaffed, underfunded, and overwhelmed.

ECS advises community members to call the police when help is needed.

The County says there is nothing they can do

Despite the questions being raised about the facility’s tenants and operations, the Marin Board of Supervisors claims their hands are tied by the terms and conditions of the Homekey grants program. They say there’s nothing they can do about any of this. They say their only option would be to not provide the $12.9 million in subsidy and say no to ECS and the grants funding, which would be unacceptable because of the immensity of the homeless crisis.

But there’s little evidence that they’ve even tried to address the community’s concerns.

In its October 19, 2021 issue, The Pacific Sun reported that according to Katie Rice, ‘opposition by neighbors cannot stop the project’ and that ‘the Board of Supervisors is determined to move ahead.’ Please note that Supervisor Rice made this pronouncement two days before the County’s first Community Informational Forum about the proposal.

Can you blame residents for starting an online petition to express their opposition?

Community members have proposed that the County put conditions on the $11 million gift of public funds or purchase the property themselves and simply lease it to ECS on a long-term basis. This would put the County in a better position to have some say about the performance of the facility’s operator. However, according to the Pacific Sun, October 19, 2021 edition, in response to this suggestion, Katie Rice said,

“Marin County isn’t in the business of owning any housing. I think it really makes sense that the operator is the owner of the property.”

This response is nonsensical. Katie Rice serves on The Marin Housing Authority’s Board of Directors, which owns and manages six low-income housing projects in Marin, including the largest public housing project in the North Bay, the 375-unit Golden Gate Village apartments in Marin City.

Another suggestion is that although the County cannot place any conditions on Homekey funded project programs, there is nothing in the law that prohibits them from including performance conditions on the $12.9 million gift of public funds. For example, the granting agreement could stipulate that the gift will convert to a lien on the property and the County would gain majority voting rights on the project’s board in the event certain, specified operational and management failures occur. This would not close the facility or hamper its operations but would revert management control to the County.

This suggestion has also been ignored for unexplained reasons.

The County needs to listen

Supervisor Rice obviously made up her mind about the South Eliseo project long before the public was aware of the proposal. The Project Homekey Legislative Brief cites the statutory relevance within Assembly Bill 83, which claims the overriding authority of Homekey funded project to circumvent certain local zoning laws, the California Environmental Quality Act, and even precludes any requirements for community support or outreach. Though this may be true, it doesn’t mean our Supervisors should hide behind it.

When the Ross Valley Nursery School informed the County that they opposed the project and asked for a meeting, Supervisor Rice ignored their request. Ms. Rice has told chastised critics to “open their hearts” and embrace the project. But their objections have nothing to do with a lack of empathy. They have to do with common sense and fairness to all stakeholders.

After all, residents of Marin are the ones whose hard work and taxes have enabled this housing opportunity to exist in a safe, stable community. They deserve to be heard and solutions that address their legitimate concerns need to be found.

One of the ironies of the South Eliseo Drive proposal is that families will not be eligible to apply for residency, as was stated when the County was originally marketing the proposal. ECS says that it “considered families for this property, but Homekey’s funding and timing are not conducive to a family site. Redevelopment requirements for family programming would likely require more timing than we have,” and that “Changing to a family unit mix would significantly reduce ongoing subsidies for operations and services.”

Translation: The project is designed around the funding, not the needs of the community.

But the truth is that state grants programs are intentionally designed to separate homeless housing for families and children from the individuals who will qualify to live at 1251 South Eliseo Drive because facilities like this are an inappropriate and potentially harmful environment for families and children.

This begs the question, if the facility is not an appropriate place for families and children to mix with the “chronically homeless individuals” who will live at 1251 South Eliseo Drive, how is it appropriate to have this project located there, in an area surrounded by homes, parks, and streets filled with families and children?

We can do better. We must.

[1] See pages 53 and 54 of the October 19th public presentation, and available at Project Homekey Discussion about 1251 South Eliseo Drive, Larkspur - YouTube

[2] This is how funding programs misuse statistical data, creating a false correlation between crime and illness data and having housing. Correlation is not causation.

[3] Research indicates that the Central Marin Police Authority and the Twin Cities Police Department, which are responsible for law enforcement in Larkspur, are presently under-staffed and without sufficient funding to deal with the types of criminal and mental health issues that may arise at the ECS facility.

Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident, the Editor of the Marin Post, and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded by individuals and nonprofit donors. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of California residents.