Eden Updates, Policy Updates

Mayor’s Corner: Kate Colin, Mayor of San Rafael

March 1, 2024

This is part of Eden Housing’s ongoing “Meet the Mayor” series, where we highlight the leaders of the towns and cities Eden Housing serves. Eden is proud to work with more than 50 mayors throughout the state of California who, along with their other elected colleagues on the city or town council, have supported the creation of affordable housing in their jurisdictions with the aim of serving a more diverse population.

Mayor Kate Colin has been serving the City of San Rafael since 2005, when she was first elected as planning commissioner, a position she held for eight years, later joining the city council in January 2013. She was elected mayor in 2020, becoming the first female mayor since 1874 when the city was incorporated.

Throughout her tenure, Colin has been a strong proponent of diversity in the city, with the goal of creating more housing opportunities, including advocating for two Eden Housing projects, 3301 Kerner and the recently opened Vivalon Healthy Aging Campus.

Exploring her path to public service

Colin has been involved in the community since she moved to San Rafael 28 years ago, first in more “kid-centric” roles to support her own children, including serving as a Girl Scout leader, soccer coach and school volunteer, where she was able to connect with the local community. “I was so impressed by the residents and how involved and engaged they are in our city,” she said. Later, she wanted to explore other opportunities to participate in civic engagement and joined several boards, including the Citizen Advisory Committee to Redevelopment before the Redevelopment Agency dissolved.

She then applied for the planning commission, which drew her interest as she became interested in the policy part of land use through learning more about the impact land use can have on the local community’s economic and physical health.

“Like many elected female leaders, I was very fortunate to have a wonderful mentor in Barbara Heller, who, as only the third woman city council member, helped me evolve over the years,” Colin said.  When a position became open, she ran for office and was elected as the fourth woman on the council. Today that number has grown to seven, showing an encouraging trajectory of more women becoming involved through elected office.

She then ran for Mayor as she was looking forward to another challenge and making an even deeper impact. “I was hoping to help set the stage for women who will come after me,” she says, noting that it wasn’t an easy start as the pandemic had already started when she took office.

Decoding the housing puzzle in San Rafael

San Rafael is representative of conditions in California and throughout the United States, where jobs are outpacing housing supply, a situation that’s particularly acute in California, given the high cost of building. Yet, it has been a priority to continue to build. “We have set the right parameters and our staff is focused on attracting solid projects here,” she said. However, even  projects that have been approved are sometimes sidelined, such as during the downturn. That led the city to start looking in 2018 at the unintended barriers thwarting a project’s movement from approval to completion and since then they have greatly streamlined the process to make it easier, faster and more efficient to build.

Local affordable housing stock has been bolstered by new state laws that encourage developers to create more. And San Rafael also has its own Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which offers flexible grants for gap funding, which helps with projects like 3301 Kerner. “When I look at needs, opportunities and challenges, the top need is housing from top market rates down to affordable housing,” she said. 

Colin believes the city is at an inflection point, with a lack of housing contributing to challenges at all levels—from attracting talent to having the best schools. However, development can’t come at the cost of the community feel San Rafael prides itself on so they choose projects that preserve open space and are close to jobs and transportation. Maintaining a vibrant downtown, with restaurants, movie theaters, shops and more, is also important. “We want to lean into the fact that San Rafael is easy to access, with people already driving through, and keep our city appealing to visitors.”

The vital role of projects like Kerner/Vivalon for inclusive cities

San Rafael depends on partners like Eden Housing to help develop affordable housing projects that otherwise might not come to fruition, such as Kerner as one of the first office conversions, which aren’t straightforward undertakings. “While there are real challenges with the site, our city is on the cutting edge and committed to supporting this holistic project with different funding sources and service agencies providing much-needed wraparound services that will yield a project our city will be proud of,” Colin says.

Vivalon, too, is unique with its focus on helping residents successfully age in place by providing not only housing, but addressing their nutritional, healthcare and even social needs. For example, loneliness becomes a major issue facing seniors today, many of whom can no longer live where they worked and built community roots for years.  Situated close to downtown, Vivalon will feel like an integral part of the community and help promote a community that has diversity across age, race and socioeconomic groups. “I’m so proud of our city and the many ‘firsts’ that we are setting,” Colin says. “It really reflects our aim to nurture the right environment for these projects to succeed here.”

Continuous learning contributes to peak performance

The City of San Rafael benefits from Colin’s proactive approach to participating in groups that expose her to new ideas and best practices. For example, she represents San Rafael on several regional boards including TAM (Transportation Authority of Marin), SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit), BayWAVE (Bay Waterfront Adaptation Vulnerability Evaluation) and the BCDC Elected Official Task Force (Bay Conservation and Development Commission). She also engages with mayors nationwide as a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Mayors for Guaranteed Income in support of those inclusive policies.

And, she’s active with the Climate Mayors, a group that focuses on mitigating the many climate change issues including extreme weather and rising sea levels that are impacting places like San Rafael and surrounding cities. San Rafael will be one of the first cities affected by the rising of the Bay, which is expected to especially impact lower-income neighborhoods, lending urgency to the  Climate Mayors’ efforts to access potentially needed funds faster and with less red tape.

Recently Colin applied for the Mayor’s Institute on City Design through the United States Conference of Mayors, and was accepted as only one of eight mayors to participate in the 2024 MICD Just City Mayoral Fellowship, an online semester-long fellowship taught through the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “It’s an honor to have been selected and I am looking forward to working with my peers as we learn more about how to address the many complicated, pressing issues we face and make decisions that will benefit San Rafael now and in the future.”