It was a seasonably warm Sunday afternoon in Bolinas, which meant parking was going to be tough.
Around a dozen cars idled along Brighton Avenue leading to the beach, their drivers waiting for a spot as surfers peeled off their wetsuits and loaded longboards into hatchbacks and Sprinter vans. Stylish weekenders from San Francisco and the East Bay dotted the sidewalk, sipping kombucha from the Bolinas People’s Store and walking their dogs; others put down their names for a table on the crowded patio at Coast Cafe, the only full-service restaurant serving lunch in town.
Unlike many California coastal communities, this unincorporated township in western Marin County never meant to become a tourist hotspot. In fact, Bolinas has a reputation for keeping out visitors, thanks to locals who, in acts of prankish civil disobedience, for years repeatedly cut down the road signs along Highway 1 heading into town.
In 1975, after residents successfully halted major development plans for the area—an effort chronicled in journalist Orville Schell’s local history, The Town that Fought to Save Itself—Bolinas even convinced the county to adopt a legally binding community plan aimed at limiting growth and ensuring the secluded beach town “remain primarily and foremost a resident community” that maintains “a healthy balance between tourist and resident.”
But with the onset of travel blogs, Google Maps, and short-term rental sites such as Airbnb, Bolinas is anything but hidden. And many long-time residents say that balance is quickly approaching a tipping point.
“We’re the ‘town that fought to save itself’ by tearing down all its signs and hiding,” says Evan Wilhelm, managing director at the nonprofit Bolinas Community Land Trust. “But now, we have to put up signs to let people know our situation because the internet has just torn through.”
Along with the 40,000-plus Instagram posts hashtagged #bolinas has come an intensifying housing crisis, accelerated by an apparent growing demand for second homes and short-term vacation rentals that residents say is pushing many permanent families out of town. And as the residential population shrinks, locals fear their close-knit, fiercely eccentric community could give way to something resembling a resort village.
It’s a common concern for destination communities across California and beyond grappling with how to accommodate a surge in tourism while also facing a housing crunch. Cities from Pacific Grove in Monterey County to South Lake Tahoe have reportedly seen rental costs spike and local residents displaced.
In Bolinas, the permanent population has dropped by nearly a quarter since 2010 to around 1,200 residents, according to the most recent available census estimates.
Bordered by state and national parks, Bolinas has always had its share of vacation home owners drawn to the area’s natural beauty and rustic lifestyle. But Stew Oakander, a 30-year-old Bolinas native, says the town has become difficult to recognize.
“The population of Bolinas feels completely different from what it was 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. “Most of the working families that I’ve known and grown up with are gone.”
Oakander lived in town nearly his entire life until the house his parents rented was sold as a vacation home for almost $2 million in 2015. The family, which had been paying around $2,200 a month, couldn’t find anything in the area within their price range. They decided to move to Cotati in Sonoma County, even though his parents continued to work in Bolinas, an hour-long commute.
Last year, Oakander landed a job with the local water utility district and moved into a small in-law unit on a family friend’s property in town with his partner, April, and their 2-year-old son. Living in these accessory units—many of them unpermitted and not up to code—is common among young families who aren’t lucky enough to inherit homes, residents say.
Although Oakander’s housing situation is more livable than the converted storage sheds some go home to, he says it’s not a place to raise a family, and he expects to eventually follow his parents to Sonoma, where rent is cheaper.
“It’s definitely shrinking, because my son is almost 3 now,” he says. “It’s just a one-bedroom, one-bath studio.”
Oakander’s parents moved to Bolinas in the 1970s, when, as the town’s origin story goes, the sleepy dairy hamlet an hour north of the city was discovered by San Francisco flower children who had come to clean the Bolinas Lagoon after an oil spill off the coast. They purchased plots of land, set up artist colonies and communes, and established an ethos of back-to-the-earth environmentalism that the town still prides itself on.
Today, the current average home price in Bolinas has climbed to over $2.5 million, a nearly 40 percent increase from just the month prior, according to Trulia.com, suggesting a rush of the same tech money that has inflated real estate prices throughout the Bay Area.
Terry Donohue, an agent with Bolinas Real Estate, said in recent years, her buyers have included more tech workers seeking second homes. She added that after decades of stability in the number of available homes on the market, more properties in town are coming up for sale. “Long-time owners have aged or passed away, which is contributing to the inventory,” she wrote in an email.
While increased supply may bring prices down, it could also lead to more full-time residents being displaced as owners look to take advantage of the hot real estate market by selling homes they had been renting out.
Nowhere is displacement felt more strongly than at the Bolinas-Stinson School, where K-8 enrollment is down to just 90 students, a more than 25 percent drop since 2014.
“Enrollment sizes saw a drastic shift as the town turned into—I hate to call it a resort community—but as fewer families live here,” says John Carroll, Bolinas-Stinson Union School District superintendent. “As class sizes get smaller, schools feel less like schools.”
To accommodate smaller classes, the school has begun combining grades for certain subjects. Still, teachers and school employees say some classrooms continue to be “dysfunctional” because of their small size, prompting parents to pull students from the district.
Art teacher Nuria Lee says the family of one of her students was recently given a 60-day eviction notice for the home they rent in town. The uncertainty families experience around housing can take its toll on her students. “That’s a very real concern families have to face,” she says.
In addition to an influx of outside wealth, short-term rental services such as Airbnb and VRBO may have contributed to the squeeze on available rentals.
“The transition to short-term rentals has been very acute in Bolinas,” says Dennis Rodoni, a Marin County supervisor and West Marin native. “It’s really affected the permanent rental market there.”
The main issue, Rodoni says, is that second homeowners are increasingly turning to short-term rental apps instead of leasing to local caretakers, a long-standing practice in Bolinas. Owners may see listing on these sites as a more lucrative option or prefer the flexibility of home-sharing to a long-term lease.
Studies back up these trends. A 2017 paper from researchers at UCLA, USC, and the National Bureau of Economic Research found that an increase in short-term rentals in a neighborhood leads to higher rents and a reduction in the long-term rental supply.
According to county data, 38 properties in Bolinas are registered with the county as short-term rentals. Although likely not a complete count, the number represents a marked portion of Bolinas’s housing stock. The Bolinas Community Land Trust estimates there are around 600 to 700 homes in town, but it says only half of those homes are occupied by full-time residents, meaning that each house taken off the rental market has a tangible impact on the total supply.
“I know so many people right now looking for houses, and they’re [finding] all Airbnbs,” says Pam Springer, a mother of two who came to Bolinas in the early 1990s after a friend she met while following the Grateful Dead on tour asked Springer to move in with her.
Springer now pays $3,500 a month to lease the three-bedroom house her family moved into last summer, but struggles to make rent and expects to move out of state once her lease expires in a few years. Like other residents on the town’s gridded Mesa, a mostly dirt road peninsula overlooking the Pacific with stunning views of Mount Tamalpais State Park, she’s noticed an uptick in homes that sit empty for significant periods of time.
Airbnb contests that short-term rentals have a sizable impact on the permanent rental market in Bolinas and nearby Stinson Beach.
“Vacation rentals have been a part of the Stinson Beach and Bolinas economies for decades and represent a small portion of the housing stock in both cities,” the company said in a statement. “For generations these short-term rentals have created supplemental income for families, supported neighborhood businesses and helped protect access to California’s coast by providing affordable accommodations.”
Next year, Rodoni says the board of supervisors expects to discuss a pilot program in Bolinas that would require at least one full-time occupant live at any property used as a short-term rental. The program, which could be rolled out to other West Marin communities, may also provide subsidies to homeowners who agree to build and rent permitted second units on their property, a strategy that’s being adopted by local governments across California.
A local housing nonprofit is already helping some West Marin homeowners repurpose bedrooms or cottages as studio apartments to rent out at affordable rates. The program is also available in Bolinas through a partnership with the Bolinas Community Land Trust, but local regulations around septic tanks dissuade most homeowners from creating the inlaw units, an issue the trust says it is working to address.
The land trust, which rents out 15 residential units in Bolinas, receives a mix of public grants and private donations to fund its operations. Its main goal is to purchase homes and commercial spaces that it redevelops and leases to low-income renters.
Building in Bolinas is made difficult, however, by a moratorium on issuing new water meters that connect buildings to the town’s water supply. In addition to severely curbing new development, the restriction has the effect of limiting the number of units that can be added to an existing property.
Imposed by the local water board in 1971, the moratorium is often viewed as a purely anti-development policy. Don Smith, a member of the Bolinas Community Utility Water District Board, who also advises the land trust, pushed back against that belief. He said that the rule is necessary because the town is not connected to the county water district and relies on a local creek that is prone to drought.
“That’s a perennial misunderstanding that just won’t go away,” Smith says. “The water moratorium would never have stood up in court if that was the reason.”
But as a result, when a new water meter does come up for auction every few years, it can go for as much as $225,000. And the limiting effect the moratorium has on new building only serves to further raise property values.
All of this puts a strain on the land trust to raise enough money to compete with wealthy buyers. The organization is currently in the middle of a $2 million capital campaign, which relies in large part on donations from affluent vacation homeowners. Wilhelm, the trust’s managing director, says it can at times be difficult to approach potential donors without making them feel like they’re to blame for the town’s housing shortage. But she believes engaging with new part-time residents can lead to a solution.
“At this point, we’re trying to make relationships with some of these wealthier people and hoping they become supporters of the land trust,” Wilhelm says. “If we can designate enough housing in town for affordable housing, then we can sustain ourselves and Bolinas can also be the vacation rental town.”
One second homeowner, who declined to be named for this article, describes an ongoing tension between part-time residents and “Old Bo” locals who don’t want to see the town change. Still, the homeowner said many part-timers are creatives and artists who make an effort to contribute to the community. Some serve on the boards of local nonprofits including the Bolinas Museum, which hosts public events in town.
The homeowner, who rents a unit to a local resident, also points to contributions made to the land trust by second homeowners, including possibly an anonymous donation of two vacant plots of land, on which the organization plans to develop permanent housing.
Of course, more part-time residents and weekenders also means new business opportunities, and a handful of locals have set up new shops and eateries that cater to the changing crowd.
Tyrone Brendel, a 29-year-old Bolinas native, opened a health food restaurant, Bovida, last year. It serves colorful acai bowls, grilled panini sandwiches, and fresh smoothies. “I wouldn’t have been able to open this business 10 years ago,” he says.
The store stays busy during the warmer summer and fall months, but once tourist season ends, it struggles to rely on a shrinking local clientele. After a difficult first winter, Brendel plans to close the restaurant for a month or two at the start of next year to avoid taking a loss.
“In the wintertime, it’s such a ghost town,” Brendel says. “It’s hard to make it through those times because there’s no one here.”
While new visitors may spur business, residents say tourists are also overburdening nearby trail systems and nature preserves. After local blogs and travel sites began writing about a day hike to Alamere Falls, a scenic, highly Instagrammable beach waterfall in the Point Reyes National Seashore, the trail has become, at times, nearly impassable.
“There’s garbage all along the hike, and you can’t even go on the weekends anymore,” says resident Katie Weber. “People park illegally along the road all the way to the fire department, which is, like, miles from the hike.”