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Marin County’s anti-growth mindset keeps minorities and low-income residents out

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Homeowners’ real concerns are becoming more clear

Homes and stores along Bridgeway Street in the city of Sausalito.
Homes and stores along Bridgeway Street in the city of Sausalito.
Photo by BorisVetshev

As the state of California looks forward to a denser, more inclusive future, Marin is stuck in the past. Homeowners in the tony county north of the Golden Gate Bridge have gone out of their way to block housing—affordable housing, to be specific—in an effort to keep the place ensconced in an era that no longer exists.

The most recent example: a 400-home development shot down by NIMBY residents. In Liam Dillion’s piece for the Los Angeles Times, predominantly white and wealthy residents have become emboldened in their language to protect their quality of life while keeping decades-long patterns of segregation firmly in place.

To wit:

In recent years, Marin residents have blocked housing of all kinds. The 400-unit project that county supervisors rejected in December was the third in six years developers proposed on the site, where a former Baptist seminary now sits abandoned. Another stalled project would have built 224 homes for low-income seniors and families on land owned by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas. A failed effort to redevelop a run-down strip mall into 82 apartments primarily for low-income residents fueled the defeat of a county supervisor who backed it.

But wait, it gets worse:

Racial issues have also become part of the conversation. A proposal to redevelop a blighted Marinwood shopping center into 82 apartments primarily for low-income residents prompted a raucous community meeting about affordable housing in 2013 led by then-county Supervisor Susan Adams.

There Melissa Bradley, a prominent Marin County real estate agent, charged Adams with having “volunteered us for the ghetto.” Stephen Nestel, a local blogger opposed to the project, said that it could increase crime, illustrating his argument with a photo of an MS-13 gang member in El Salvador handcuffed with tattoos covering his back. Adams later fought off a recall attempt but lost her seat in the next scheduled election, where housing issues were a dominant concern.

This type of community input is one of the myriad of reasons why Marin has been able to maintain segregation practices, which date to the 1940s. Back then, “the federal government guaranteed bank loans to developers of white-only subdivisions in Marin, promoted the use of racially restrictive covenants on deeds to prevent people of color from buying homes and subsidized white residents’ mortgages but not others,” according to the LA Times.

Marin County isn’t the only place where this happened. Major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco also took part homeownership segregation, and the effects are still being felt today.

By the late 1960s, Congress outlawed housing segregation via the Fair Housing Act, but that didn’t stop Marin homeowners from using housing appreciation, pastoral views, and alleged environmental concerns as a way of blocking construction and development on their many miles of untouched land. (This isn’t specific to Marin County; the same can be seen in San Francisco when politicians, a group who rarely chime in on aesthetics or design, bemoan housing construction in the name of nostalgia, height, or straw man environmental impact reports.)

Photo by Daniel Ramirez

This isn’t to say the entirety of Marin homeowners border on nefarious. Omar Carrera, executive director of the Canal Alliance, is one of many low-income housing activists in Marin calling out residents’ opposition to housing against their ostensibly liberal views.

“They say they want to maintain the roots and characteristics of our county,” Carrera told the LA Times. “But what they really are saying is that they want to maintain it as white and wealthy.”

Home to record-breaking real estate transactions and some of the wealthiest people in the world—as well as the largest inequities between racial groups of any county in the state—Marin is anything but a small town. It’s time for San Francisco’s neighbors to the north to play catch up, or else. In 2017, Senator Scott Wiener introduced SB 35, a bill that would, in effect, force cities to build more housing by temporarily hobbling much of their ability to say no to new growth.