Young denizens of West Marin voiced concerns on Sunday about the fate of their community, which they say is in danger of suffocating in its own age and affluence unless more affordable and less restricted housing options are made available for future generations.
Over a hundred local residents, including Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey and Planning Commissioner Wade Holland, listened to concerns and helped brainstorm solutions—from turning the Inverness Valley Inn into cooperative housing to galvanizing a posse of young adults to reach out to second-home owners.
“This community has reached an important threshold for my peers and I,” said Maggie Beth Levinger, 28, an organizer of the event. “There is a social stigma to being in need, but the truth is that most of us are finding it difficult to stay here.”
Sunday’s event, titled “Empowering the Next Generation of Community Builders,” was the seventh in a series of “community conversations” and was organized by a group of local twenty-somethings and sponsored, in part, by the Community Land Association of West Marin (CLAM). Previous conversations have delved into topics ranging from land stewardship to community relations with Point Reyes National Seashore.
According to the executive director CLAM, Sam Grant, an individual should pay no more than 40 percent of his or her overall salary on housing, but in West Marin, where the average per month rent is $1,800, renters often struggle to meet that goal. “Imagine what it does to your zest when you have to wonder ever day where you’ll have to live next,” he said.
The idea of “house gleaning” was a major topic of discussion. There are nearly 400 homes in Inverness alone that remain vacant most, if not all, of the year, Levinger said. Many of those could be inhabited at reduced costs without any changes in zoning.
“We go out and glean our vegetables. We need to go out and glean houses,” said Inverness resident and sustainable architect Sym Van der Ryn, who introduced the event. “We need to go and find out where are these houses and how do we contact their owners.”
Mark Switzer, of Inverness, who facilitated a group discussion on underused housing, talked about galvanizing a “posse” of young people to reach out to homeowners. “The bad news is it’s going to be really hard,” he said. “The good news is that the people who can figure it out are here and are incredibly energetic.”
Other ideas, not all pertaining to housing, abounded. One was providing landlords with incentives, such as work parties or service exchanges, to reduce rents. Another was the creation of a community preservation trust that would enable property owners to donate a portion of their land as an easement for future affordable housing. Also discussed were increasing incentives, such as water access and micro-loans, to small farmers, and establishing a mentoring program between local nonprofit board members and younger residents.
“Within that there was also this thing about being able to be inspired to give service, so really this is a question about invitation,” said Lisa Doran, of Point Reyes Station. “I don’t think West Marin has been really big on the welcome wagon in the past.”
Permitting restrictions weighed heavily in all the discussions. Many participants wanted to increase the allowable size of second units and housing density, improve septic codes and reduce the overall time and cost it takes to attain building permits. “Policy change is going be slow and laborious in many ways,” said Marshall Livingston, a property owner, landlord and Inverness resident. “But many of these needs are really immediate, so in many ways, we just need to get out and start doing it.”
Holland thought the meeting did a good job of generating awareness, but felt that the biggest hurdle moving forward would involve reaching out to the second-home owners. “There has to be a better commitment from people who own land but don’t live here,” he said. “The people who see this place as an idyllic resort and don’t necessarily see that there is a whole infrastructure here that we need to keep going.”
For Grant, the meeting served as an encouraging first step in a long process. “The question now is: what are the next steps?” he said. “How will this information be used? What’s the follow-through going to be? And that’s not a critique of the group, but rather a challenge to the community.”
From here, the conversation’s organizers hope to keep the momentum. “Moving forward there’s been lots of conversation about how to do that. We’ve talked about possibly an online forum, but I think ideally we are going to meet and pick out the best ideas and put it back out to the community,” said Molly Myerson, 29. “Our goal is not to do this all ourselves but to instead facilitate the community taking on aspects and action.”
Myerson, who last year helped start a popular weekly game night, ended the meeting by urging participants to work together both formally and informally. “Each of you should have a gathering, a potluck, a dinner, whatever,” she said. “At game night, we spend a lot of time just talking and brainstorming and discussing what we are doing. The games are fun but are just the guise.”