Browsing for Housing in Expensive Marin County
May 24, 2023
Marin County is known for its gorgeous landscapes, close-knit communities, and expensive housing. While the Bay Area as a whole is often criticized for its housing prices, Marin is in a league of its own.
Leaving the East Coast and heading towards sunny California might seem like a cliche thing to do in the 70s, but for Laura Gabree it only felt natural. “I lived right up the street from San Rafael High, I used to walk my daughters there when they were little,” said Gabree. Laura Gabree has been working as a caregiver in Marin for the past 35 years.
Fairfax, where Gabrees have resided for the past few decades, is often recognized for its hippie aesthetics and culture. With strong connections to bands like the Grateful Dead and a Bernie sign every block or so, it should be a progressive hotspot where affordable housing is as abundant as water. Sadly, several residents have had to learn the opposite.
Settling down and starting a family a couple decades back was a lot easier for Gabree. “Rents were affordable then, I was a single mother and I was making enough money to [pay my rent].” As she’s gotten older, keeping up with skyrocketing rent prices and stagnant wage increases has become more and more of a challenge.
Since Gabree arrived in Marin, the landscape of the housing market in the United States has changed significantly. Housing prices jumped 1608% since 1970, with affluent counties and locations like Marin and the Bay Area skyrocketing in price. Many people who originally moved here years ago have found themselves struggling to make ends meet, or have been forced to leave due to rising prices.
Even the elderly aren’t promised a place to sleep at night in Marin. Gabree feels like she lucked out in her case. Having applied and been put on a waitlist for affordable housing five years ago, Gabree recently found some security in her life. “If I didn’t apply when I applied, I would probably be living with my kids,” said Gabree. “The housing is scarce and the rents are too high for elders.”
Several older folks often rely on social security checks and pensions to get by, but with rents rising, even those checks don’t feel very secure.
Joe McGarry is a renter in Fairfax and a member of the Marin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. “Being a renter means you lack housing security. There is always the possibility of you having to leave your home and it not being your decision.”
In the years since the 2008 recession, the debate about housing prices and rising costs of rent and living have increased in the United States. In a speech at an Arizona high school in 2013, former president Barack Obama said, “As home prices rise, we can’t just re-inflate a housing bubble… laying a rock-solid foundation to make sure the kind of crisis we just went through never happens again.”
However as the years have gone by, housing prices and rent have continued to steadily rise nationally. Among the places that have been affected the most by this, California stands out as an unfortunate example of a housing market in which many California residents struggle. Even with the state stepping in to cap increases to rent and attempts to regulate the housing market, many areas of California continue to be increasingly expensive with no sign of stopping.
In some areas in the Bay Area, rent rose as much as 30% following the pandemic. The increase in housing costs has been rising steadily in the Bay Area for many years. “Housing costs in Marin and the Bay Area are among the highest in the country,” said Curt Ries, the co-chair of the Marin DSA. “One-third of Marin are renters.”
In Marin, less affluent areas and communities in places like the Canal and Marin City struggle under the high cost of living and lack of housing security. With largely minorities making up these areas, the shortage of affordable housing and lack of housing security are big problems.
When entering the Canal District down Francisco Blvd E, taking a left at the Mazda Dealership, and going past 7/11 reveals what housing really looks like for many of Marin’s low income residents. The apartment building located at 400 Canal St., aptly nicknamed the “400s,” is a giant gray building with around 99 apartment spaces. While other apartment buildings of similar stature exist around the area, the “400s” is arguably the most “famous” apartment building in the Canal. Its gray silhouette dominates the area around it and it’s hard to ignore as it is located right at the beginning of Canal Street.
Recently, a fire displaced 30 people living in 7 apartment spaces on the fourth floor of the building. Many who were displaced now lack a place to call home and will most likely see their way out of Marin County.
Omar Carrera, CEO of Canal Alliance, finds that housing in the Canal District is usually among the most scarce in all of Marin which already lacks housing. “Marin County is the worst county, in the state of California, when it comes to housing,” said Carrera.
The Canal District is often known for its overcrowding, with more than 12,000 people living in two square miles. The need for affordable housing is strong, but how can it be administered in such a small area?
In their own right, Canal Alliance has devoted time and money in saving current apartments and tenants in the Canal District. With strategies that involve preserving tenant’s current living situations and guiding others, Canal Alliance hopes to alleviate some of these problems. “We are trying [to buy] existing buildings and improve them, without raising rents for the families that already live there,” said Carrera.
With 3 buildings and 12 units in total, Canal Alliance can only do so much as a nonprofit. “Unfortunately the market has not been on our side,” said Carrera. “[When housing goes on the market in the Canal District] we try to compete, but we get priced out in no time.”
With big corporations in a hurry to take advantage of the opportunity zone designated Canal District, few people can compete in the housing market. With buildings like the “400s” being swooped up by companies that might not have any real stake in the community, tenants are afraid. In fact, the new owners, Tesseract Capital Group, hope to create higher end apartment spaces where families once lived.
We reached out to Tesseract Capital Group, the new owners of the “400s”, but got no response.
I, Josue Mena, have also struggled a lot with my own housing issues in Marin County in the past. Getting the rent bill every first friday of every month and seeing small increases is never fun. It’s one of the many reasons I’ve never had my own room or even had a living space that was strictly my family. Living with random drunkards in your living room isn’t something most have to experience, but in the Canal District it isn’t completely ruled out.
Wualter Lopez, a landhand in West Marin and Canal resident, says that he’s never lived in a room of his own. “It’s mainly been living rooms with a couple of other old guys,” said Lopez.
I know that he’s telling the truth because he has lived in my living room before.
Mayor of San Rafael, Kate Colin, argues that the city’s policymakers are doing all they can in regards to creating more affordable housing. “[In] San Rafael, we don’t build housing ourselves,” said Mayor Colin. Mayor Colin and the City realize that approving projects brought by developers don’t always yield the best results. “Our role is [removing] the appropriate barriers so housing does actually get built.”
Eighty-five percent of land in Marin County is designated as protected. To Mayor Colin, this means being diligent and smart about where housing should be built is important. But the City doesn’t have much say in where housing can be built.
The City seems to play a more passive role in the creation of affordable housing, with most of the weight being put on developers, market forces, and the community in the area.
The San Rafael City Planning Commission tends to converse with developers about an intended project, but other than approving or denying the project the City doesn’t have a huge role in seeing the project through.
Aside from some cosmetic regulations, few affordable housing regulations, and regulations sent from the state, developers have a lot of room to stretch their legs.
One of the few affordable housing regulations in San Rafael makes developers with 15 units or more set aside 5% of their units for affordable housing. While the rest of these units can be at market rate. But even then, this regulation can be bypassed through several methods like paying the City the equivalent of the affordable housing units initially required.
Many aren’t convinced that lifting up regulations and creating a friendlier atmosphere for developers is the right move. And without fast action, many might leave San Rafael or Marin County and have no say in the matter. People like Laura Gabree, who started a family and contributed to the community in meaningful ways might not have a place in Marin in the near future.
Alex Schafran, an author and expert on housing in the Bay Area, believes that restructuring the whole system might be something to look into. “We’ve been stuck in a world where there’s ‘market-rate housing’, where developers build things and sell them to the highest bidder, and then you have ‘affordable housing’ [this is housing] that’s for really low income [renters],” said Schafran. He finds that fighting about what housing should be built ends up with a lack of any housing being built. “It’s kind of a silly fight.”
Schafran thinks that communities like the Canal aren’t really segregated now thanks to older policies like redlining, but for more economic reasons. “All of the workers that keep Marin going [are] hopping on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and finding [themselves] a place in Richmond or Antioch,” said Schafran. “When communities of color were legally allowed to live in these suburbs, they still weren’t able to do it because they couldn’t afford it.”
People of color aren’t the only ones being barred, as mentioned earlier, Marin’s elders are also at the forefront of the issue. Both communities are expected to increase in the coming years – with Marin’s elderly population expected to grow to 34% by 2030 as stated in a report conducted by the County of Marin – a solution is desperately needed.
Schafran isn’t quick to blame developers or even governments like Marin County. “For profit developers are [incentivized to] build things for the richest possible people because they don’t get paid until the end,” said Schafran.
Like it or not, developers do take on a lot of financial responsibility when they create buildings for people to live in. From receiving investments to building costs, developers risk losing a lot. This creates an atmosphere that makes it necessary for developers to charge huge rates just to keep afloat. “Right now, [most developers] are incentivized to sell [their projects] to the highest bidder which can turn out to be a landlord that milks his tenants for as much money as possible,” said Schafran.
Because the housing scene in places like Marin is complicated and problems are so deep rooted, Schafran believes that even lifting regulations and removing limits to persuade developers and investors to go into places like the Canal isn’t enough. Changing what brings out developers and how they get paid should be considered when making sweeping changes in the housing market.
A fee-based system for developers is one of these changes that Schafran wants to see play out. Rather than having that uncertainty that comes with finding investors and buyers, creating a system where developers have a concrete budget and price could prevent huge rates. But even Schafran acknowledges this as an unlikely solution in today’s current landscape.
With developers, general contractors, construction companies, and policymakers all playing important roles in the messed up machine that is the housing market, a complete flip of the housing system is probably the best solution.
Flipping isn’t anything new for the housing market. So is overhauling the entire system hard? Schafran says no.
“It sounds so impossible [and] yeah this is the kind of thing that is gonna take years,” said Schafran. “It’s not as insane as it sounds.”
With other successful models of affordable housing systems all around the world and even in the Bay Area, we know that this can be done, but it’ll take a lot of effort.
“All of the people involved in the current housing system can still be involved [in a new housing system],” said Schafran. Everyone should have a place in the next new housing system in his eyes.
But waiting for sweeping changes isn’t easy for today’s current renters. Catching up to speeding rent prices proves to be challenging for many of Marin’s low-income tenants. Renters feel a pressure in Marin. With the costs of buying a house at nearly unattainable levels throughout the Bay Area, buying a house in Marin is becoming more difficult for most working class people. These conditions cause people to have to leave their homes, or be displaced by the complicated issues facing them.
“Historically…in many communities in California there’s been a respect to private contracts related to housing providers and folks who need a place to sleep at night,” said Chance Cutrano, mayor of Fairfax. “At the same time, as housing has increased in value, with a legacy of slow or no growth in parts of Marin county, Fairfax especially has limited housing production. There’s more attention now to how we regulate the supply and providing of housing, especially for people struggling under financial stress.”
The Fairfax city council has gone through great effort to help its citizens with housing compared to other communities in Marin. Various initiatives and legislation combined with California state government attempts to curb the rapidly out of control housing market have created a strained triangle of interactions between landlords, tenants, and government.
Michael Sexton is a Fairfax landlord, and the organizer of the Marin Residence PAC. An older man in his 60s, he settled in Fairfax to avoid the high costs of other parts of Marin, and currently owns a rental unit in Fairfax.
“We prefer to use the term housing provider,” Michael said. “It’s a less historical term than landlord.”
Michael, along with many other landlords and housing providers in Marin, use the properties they rent out to supplement their income and provide for their families.
Michael is a co-founder of the Marin Residents PAC. A large group of landlords in Fairfax have objected to the city’s policies regarding rent control and just cause evictions. Many landlords oppose the policy for a variety of reasons.
“Rent control is a very all-encompassing policy in that it affects people’s lives, income and their retirement, as well as how they interact with their house and rental unit,” said Sexton. “It affects a lot of people, renters too.”
In an article published by the Pacific Sun last month, another co-founder of the Marin Residents PAC, duplex owner Philip Salaverry expressed his distaste for the new ordinances put forth by the Fairfax city council. “There’s nothing in those ordinances that I would accept,” Salaverry said in the article. “The two ordinances combined are 36 pages long, and all of it is terrible for the housing provider.”
“These rules cause situations where people with open units refuse to rent out their units because they feel the rules are too restrictive and there’s too much risk,” Sexton said. “When the market is smaller, the rent increases and the options decrease.”
“Since I can’t keep up with the rising costs of utilities, I can’t raise the costs enough to keep up with inflation. I make less money each year, and it creates a better deal for long term tenants but hurts everybody else.”
While many residents support the ordinances, Sexton believes it is not just the ordinances but the way they were implemented that was unfair.
”The fact that the whole policy of rent control was voted in by five people and not brought to a general vote was undemocratic. Because this is such a major policy that affects everybody’s livelihood, it really needed to be brought to a vote for the people. I found it profoundly undemocratic.”
Members of the DSA, who pushed for the rent control ordinances, see the source of the backlash differently.
“We knew that realtors and landlords were going to push back against rent control because their profits were being threatened…the pushback against just cause evictions came from perception of a lack of control,” Curt Ries said. “It’s people or profit.”
Laura Gabree has little to no hope that her current situation will stay stable. “All the [landlords and politicians] who seem to be in control of the [rent control situation] are failing,” said Gabree. Although she currently stays in a place where the rent is affordable, Gabree doesn’t find it hard to imagine a reality where everything falls apart.
The reality is that few in Marin, even those making the decisions, often really know the struggle of being displaced from their homes. With all these strategies and solutions being proposed, in a place like Marin it takes many years, and real commitment to actually achieve a goal like solving the housing crisis, something our entire country is still struggling to solve right now.
Cutrano sees the situation in Fairfax as something that can be dealt with, even in an environment like Marin County. “We’re caught between these two worlds, one where Fairfax was hanging on to being an affordable place in the bay area, and a new one where Fairfax is seeing an impact from after the pandemic with housing prices rising,” he said. “We want to make sure going into this new world that we have a plan to support our citizens and prevent them from being pushed out.”