The Coastal Post - September, 1995

The Yuppification Of West Marin

No Rental Housing For Workers

BY STEPHEN SIMAC

What is the sound of a community collapsing? Is it the solid thunk of Volvo doors closing, the scratch of a pen closing escrow, or the misfiring engines of a renters as they drive out of a town because of no rentals, affordable or otherwise?

The American dream has always been to own a single-family home, become a yeoman farmer of grassy lawns and tea roses, breed and multiply with children and a dog.

The reality in Marin is houses starting at $200,000 and those are shacks with substandard septics. Most of the people who work in the communities and homes of the wealthier owners either live outside Marin or rent here at prices that stretch their budget to the limit.

Some owners bought their house over a decade ago before the price of shanties reached the cost of mansions. Now their house is worth a mountain of cash, and their credit is strained to keep it. Maybe they've added a second or third unit, brought in a trailer to rent out. They might be slumlords and ladies, but at least they provide a vital link in Marin's rental community. In fact, they hold it together.

When they finally sell out, the new owners, who've paid a quarter to half a million or more for privacy, don't want renters. That extra room is for the home office, telecommuting.

They definitely don't want trailer trash in their yard. Git on outta here, go back to Florida where trailers belong. If their neighbor has illegal living units, then they'll call the county, which will slowly squeeze them into submission to the code, "though not with the swift justice promised in the Consituation [sic]," to quote one anonymous letter sent to a Bolinas land owner by his neighbor.

Marin is a beautiful place, the jewel of the Bay Area everyone would love to live here. If they did it would be another paved-over paradise. As it is, only palaces will be built for new housing, and few rentals will be left after the old-timers die or sell out.

Marin's numerous towns and villages have managed to retain some of their unique charm and historic characteristics in spite of the trend towards less housing for the people who work and purchase in the community and more bedroom and absentee owners who rarely appear in town.

Renters who work in the communities are poorer, not as legally adept, and for the most part just leave when they are told to by the new owners. Except for pockets of resistance in the Sausalito live-aboard community, the Canal District where slumlords pack immigrants in, and Marin City which got grandfathered in, East Marin has made little effort to retain housing for people who live and work in the community.

Building new affordable housing is almost non-existent in Marin, even with court orders pending. Habitat for Humanity was stopped in Novato trying to build one affordable house. It will lower property values and increase traffic, the neighbors said. Probably true, and after Jimmy Carter banged his last nail, one more Okie would live in Marin.

Uninsured cars commuting to West Marin

Besides, it's easier to import workers up and down 101 in East Marin. West Marin is a horse of a different color, and it will be more difficult to bring servants from over the hill.

West Marin has been the last haven for the poor white trash who rent and work in the communities they live in. Yet the same economic forces are acting on West Marin. The rental stock is disappearing, or is priced so that no local workers can afford it.

Where will the hamburger flippers live, the latte steamers, babysitters and Waldorf teachers? The machines, carpenters, fence and deck builders, housecleaners, butchers and sandwich makers will be sleeping in their vans or commuting over the hill. Most servants will have to drive from other counties there will be a circular tidal flow of commuters to and from Marin.

How will young adults afford to live in the towns they grew up in unless they just hang out on the streets drinking 40 ouncers and slurping speed? Sure, some servants can become live-in nannies for the yuppie children, caregivers for the dying and elderly, cooks and therapists for the demanding wealthy. They have a place to live at the whim of spoiled children, autocratic tyrants, or until the patient dies.

It West Marin yuppification will be horrendous. Mt. Tam traffic will increase as workers drive over the hill to work in the exclusive communities of West Marin while the bedroom community owners drive the other way to pay for their palace. Head-in collisions will be more frequent as they race over the narrow, winding mountain roads. Drug fiend teens will be ripping off the empty houses.

The death of community

Good help will be even more expensive and hard to find than it is today. Most tragic of all, the communities themselves will implode as the numbers of active participants in the life of the towns are thinned out. The residents will either have no time or they just won't live there anymore. If you can't live in a community, it's very difficult to get involved or even give a shit about keeping it alive.

The small town businesses in West Marin will be forced to rely even more on tourism to survive and less on local business. There will be more weekend owners, more bed and breakfasts, and fewer people living here year-round.

Already one-third of the houses sit empty most of the time with weekend owners. Many of those living here will do their shopping over the hill where they work. It's cheaper and the service is more cheerful.

A word of warning to those who don't want trailer trash and illegal second units in their neighborhood. Your property values may increase, your privacy may be pristine, your perfect house free of problem renters.

But who will you hire for your babysitter, your house renovation work, to take care of you in your lonely mansion when you grow old and begin to die? How will you know whether you can trust them if they don't live in the community? When you want to show your friends the town and everything is shuttered because there's no place for the workers to live and wages aren't high enough to keep their cars running, will you say, "What a shame it is why did they all leave?"