The Coastal Post - August, 1996

Trailers, Shacks And Firetraps

BY STEPHEN SIMAC

Where do Marin's servants live? The service industry is Marin's largest employer, with most of its jobs paying less than Marin's median income of 63 grand a year.

The real estate section of the IJ always features the wide array of palaces and mansions available to the upper end of the median, but where do the people who make their lives worth living stay? Where do their latte makers, massage therapists, steak flippers and housecleaners live?

Their nannies may live with them, but what about their gardeners and carpenters, their waiters and waitresses and stylists, all the retail salespeople who help them shop for their many needs and desires? Some live in other counties, but not many people want to or can afford to travel long distances to work in lower wage jobs. These jobs in Marin pay higher wages than other areas, but rent here can take over half a servant's income.

At a certain point, Marin county will have priced or zoned itself out of enough service industry housing for its laborers. Certain areas will be able to import workers, but West Marin will have more difficulty finding servants if they can't afford to live there.

The society we live in requires low-paid workers, whether they be in Third World sweatshops or in our own back yard. Greed is the grease with which the global industrial machine is lubricated. Profits over people is expected, the wealthy are deified with all their whimsical desires catered to, but without low-paid workers lifting and pulling, flipping and washing, scrubbing and painting the system would come grinding to a halt.

Most Americans are conditioned to believe that the wealthy are better people, and huge income disparities between rich and poor are a natural condition reflecting talent and hard work, not institutional and systemic abuses of privilege and class. Most poor people blame themselves and most rich credit their own efforts, with neither perception being entirely correct. The reality is that both rich and poor are necessary for the economic wheels to roll, but the difference in their incomes is critical.

In counties with a narrower income gap, there is less crime, better health, and more feeling of community. America is sliding out of control towards Third World realities where the rich get richer and live behind gated communities and the poor are scapegoated for not working hard enough and live in dangerous slums.

Very few people point out that poorly-paid servants are the majority of citizens, and basically keep the system working. Most poor people would like to be rich, too, and enjoy the perks, but they are dreaming while playing the lottery. Most wealthy people refuse to acknowledge their dependence on servants, and don't seem to care very much how their help stay afloat.

These workers traditionally live in places which aren't featured in Home and Garden sections describing their privacy, charm, view and large expanses of space to decorate tastefully and expensively. In the last year I've moved around Marin doing an informal survey of what's left of low-cost housing. This wasn't entirely a voluntary exploration, as I had been fairly content to live in a trailer in Bolinas for several years, until I was forced to move by new neighbors.

If not for the unfortunate tendencies of trailers to attract tornadoes and lightning strikes, they are great low-cost housing. They are inexpensive, fairly habitable, and even mobile. In Marin where there are few tornadoes or lightning storms, there are also very few trailer parks or even single trailers. Maybe that's why Marin doesn't get many twisters, but our lack of trailer space has more to do with county zoning laws than weather phenomenon.

Even though mobile homes and trailer parks are American standard housing for millions, in Marin people who live in them are looked down on as trailer trash, regardless of how practical they are, unless they are retired, of course.

There are still many illegal second units which happen to be trailers parked next to houses with more privacy than the extra rooms or shacks which are also rented out. But an anonymous complaint to the county from a new neighbor has often meant the elimination of yet another affordable housing situation. There is some leeway for agricultural workers in West Marin who can live in trailers, but for workers who sell or prepare or serve those farm and ranch products, no tolerance is permitted.

West Marin has lost hundreds of illegal and legal affordable housing units in the last two decades with almost no replacements ventured or gained. Its villages are becoming nothing but bedrooms for commuters and weekend homes for the rich. The existing tourism and service economy depend on affordable housing for their workers. Workers may be willing to live in their cars and vans if they have to, which I did for a few months, but they can be harassed by law enforcement officers, and it's hard on your self-esteem and personal hygiene.

In urbanized East Marin, there are more apartment buildings, run-down older neighborhoods and larger houses crammed with roommates. I lived in one old, ramshackle firetrap with lots of rooms in Mill Valley for several months during the winter. It was up for sale for a half million dollars. Eight guys lived there, kind of like a YMCA, with any kind of substance you wanted to abuse available. Peace and quiet was not available at any time. I moved to an apartment complex in Fairfax, which was quiet, but I was still working in Bolinas, commuting over the hill. Now I'm in Stinson Beach, on one of the crowded Calles, where some of the last affordable housing in West Marin is.

Many of the mansions currently being constructed, virtually the only housing being built in Marin, may someday be filled with tenants, but for now, only one person or a small family squeeze their stuff into the many rooms if they live there at all. Many houses sit empty most of the time in Marin; these second or third homes are investments which are heavily subsidized by all American taxpayers.

Actually, almost all houses built in America have been subsidized in one way or another with GI bills, highways to the suburbs, the logging roads scraped in the wilderness, federal disaster insurance, the military industry and national debt buildup in the '80s which pushed house prices in the Bay Area to their current astronomical values. Our children's future has been mortgaged, yet we haven't even included their needs in the debts which have been accumulated, much less the needs of the lower income citizens who are the engine of the economy.

Home ownership in America is dreamed of with a religious fervor, yet economic reality means most of us in Marin will remain renters. Although it is nice to live in a great place, few people feel good about paying large amounts of rent month after month to subsidize their landlord's investment. Most renters live with roommates to save some of their money from being poured down the drain.

The problems with roommates are renown, but the benefits are underplayed in our individualistic society. Loneliness is epidemic in America, and the rich are not immune. They can buy companionship, but they might be better off renting a room or garage out. Certainly some of the many elderly in Marin who live alone in large houses are dying from loneliness. Why wait 'til they need a live-in attendant, when a little companionship from a caregiver might save them from becoming that debilitated?

Affordable housing in Marin has been basically viewed as something developers have to include so they can build mansions, not really essential to the economic health of the community, just another hurdle along with environmental impact statements, restrictive zoning codes and viewscapes. Most "affordable" housing means affordable to upper middle class residents, not working class people.

The construction and housing industry in America is not designed for ecological sustainability, community cohesion or even non-toxic human living spaces, but primarily towards profits for developers and banks. We can hardly expect them to initiate changes towards creating a greater variety of housing for the wide income variety our society depends upon. In Marin, wealthier environmentalists who already have theirs, put most of their efforts towards preventing anyone else from getting into the pie, so we shouldn't expect them to help. We would be laughably naive to think landlords want change. It really will be up to us renters to organize and push for changes if we want to live in Marin in the next century. Otherwise, Marin will go the way of Palm Beach, Florida, where servants can drive or be bused in as long as they have a servants' ID card checked at the gate.