Housing and the turning points in the Covid-19 crisis

05/13/2020

West Marin is a tourist economy with a large proportion of second-home ownership. Even before shelter-in-place, tourism service workers did not earn enough to afford homes in West Marin. Hospitality jobs pay an average of $3,200 a month and these workers can afford $1,000 a month in rent; meanwhile, rental prices in West Marin run closer to $2,200 for a one-bedroom. Most of the wealth in West Marin comes from outside West Marin; it is not generated by West Marin employment. The more tourism grows, the more we lose housing to second homeowners and short-term vacation rentals, which in turn drives the price of the remaining housing higher and reduces the number of homes available to those who are employed locally.

Inequities that existed before are now amplified with the Covid-19 crisis. The hammer has fallen hardest on our workers in restaurant, retail, tourism and recreation jobs. The pandemic is revealing West Marin’s economic fragility. Reliance on these low-wage jobs has left many families with little financial cushion and sent housing and community service organizations scrambling to secure emergency rental assistance and other safety-net services.

In San Francisco, hundreds of new listings for furnished apartments are cropping up on Craigslist, indicating a conversion from short-term to long-term rentals. While some may speculate that short-term rental operators in West Marin might now convert to long-term rentals, we think that many of these owners are choosing to wait out the crisis for a return to tourism. Everyone wants to believe that we will be emerging soon from the crisis, but what if this is a marathon, and not a sprint?

People who live in big cities with the ability to work remotely may also soon decide that living in a crowded urban area is no longer either desirable or safe. Post-coronavirus, they could buy or rent homes in West Marin, paying higher prices, and thereby further reducing housing for the local workforce.

The word “crisis” originates from the Greek “krisis,” meaning the turning point (such as of a disease) at which change must come, for better or worse. The Covid-19 crisis is a turning point. Many systems will never return to the way they once were. Increased ability to work remotely is probably here to stay. Many systems should not return to the way they once were. Do we really want CO2 levels to rise again? We have an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild a better system for our local and global wellbeing.

Has West Marin overinvested in a tourist economy? Luc Chamberland said that when he reopens Saltwater, he’ll have a less expensive menu. He must recognize the benefits of being able to offer a menu that serves the needs of locals from across an economic spectrum, not just tourists. Farms and ranches are pivoting toward local farmer’s markets and C.S.A.s. An economy that serves the whole local community alongside tourism will make us stronger and more resilient. Having a long-term rental alongside (or instead of) a short-term rental would provide greater economic stability, both for the owner and the community. One portion of a home could be used as a long-term rental and another portion as a short-term rental. Accessory dwelling units and junior accessory dwelling units are easier to create than ever before. CLAM can help with that. The Real Community Rentals program offers an assortment of incentives and benefits.

What kind of economy do we want in West Marin? We tend to think of the economy as the way we buy and sell things, but it doesn’t have to be that way. An economy is about what we value. An economy is about how we take the resources we have and turn them into the things we need to live, and create the society we want to live in. If we want to be more resilient to crises in the future, we need to restructure a system that values and supports our local community. What do you value? In what ways would you like to be intentional about shaping a new normal?

 

Ruth Lopez has lived in Point Reyes Station for over 30 years and works as program manager for the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin.