Local minds meet over housing crisis

05/26/2016

With a dire housing crunch squeezing out full-time residents, the Point Reyes Station Village Association and the Community Land Trust of West Marin held a forum on Sunday at the Dance Palace to assess the damage and discuss solutions. On the table were ideas such as easing county regulations on second units and legislation restricting eligibility for short-term rentals to owners who live in their homes full-time. Startling facts and anecdotes were on hand to illustrate the impacts of a rapidly depleting housing stock, which has tumbled as record-breaking crowds of visitors to West Marin’s natural attractions shack up in vacation rentals.

In Bolinas, scarce housing has contributed to declining school enrollment. Administrators at Bolinas-Stinson Unified School District say the district has lost a third of its students in less than five years. Nearly 15 percent fewer students are expected to enroll next year—from 100 students this year down to 86. 

Meanwhile, West Marin Community Services said it sees about one new client seeking housing per week. The nonprofit is currently working with four Latino families, totaling about two-dozen people, who will be evicted from their longtime homes at Olema Valley’s Stewart Ranch once school ends in June. “We all know people who’ve moved away, as well as people who have to move now and will be gone from our community soon,” said Wendy Friefeld, the group’s executive director.

In Marshall, less than a third of the houses are occupied full-time, according to resident and dairy rancher Albert Straus. He slammed county officials for not enforcing zoning rules for Marshall, where zoning is not meant to encourage people “to make profits from short-term rentals and business out of permanent residences,” he said.

Mr. Straus, who was among seven panelists invited to speak at the forum, also placed blame on state and federal parks agencies, which he said have eliminated housing opportunities on vast stretches of land. He said a recent count pegged the number of housing units demolished by the national seashore, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and California State Parks in West Marin over the past 50 years at around 120.

“We’ve done a good job of preserving the land, but we’ve not kept the community intact,” said Mr. Straus, whose family has run a dairy in Marshall since the early 1940s. “We’re in danger of becoming extinct as communities.”

According to many housing activists, the loss of such homes hits West Marin’s low-income Latino workers the hardest. Many Latino families evicted from ranches and housing in town are forced to relocate to Petaluma or beyond, where they are often charged hundreds of dollars to submit housing applications that have slim chances of acceptance.

“There are a lot of people preying on families who are looking for housing,” said Maria Niggle, chair of the West Marin Collaborative and a co-leader of the advocacy group Abriendo Caminos. “We are concerned that there is no transition plan in place for families to figure out where they are going to go.”

And it’s these workers and their families, Ms. Niggle said, who shore up West Marin’s economic and social vitality. “No one is asking for a hand out,” she said. “People work hard for this community to keep it vibrant, healthy and well-fed.”

Each panelist brought a different background to the ranging discussion on affordable housing. All agreed that rapidly declining housing stock poses the greatest threat to West Marin’s towns and villages, which panelist and Point Reyes Station Village Association president Karen Grey called “our precious little pearls strung along the coast.”

Much of the discussion centered on how the county could lighten permit requirements for legalizing second units, which many housing activists prefer over new development. But doing so could be tricky for thousands of West Marin homes with septic systems, given county and state regulations that set minimum size requirements for systems based on 150 gallons per day per bedroom. Many said systems expanded to handle an additional 150 gallons per day for a second-unit bedroom would be too big to fit on properties—and be unnecessary, since most people do not use 150 gallons a day. They wondered whether a 100-gallon-per-day minimum might be more reasonable.

“That is more water than we have out here anyway,” said Don Smith, a director for the Bolinas Community Public Utility District. “And it’s a huge expense.”

Mr. Smith said he sent a proposal for a Bolinas-specific ordinance to the county’s Environmental Health Services that would permit second units for homes with well-functioning septic systems to allow for 105 gallons per day. Pending multi-agency planning processes, “I think that’s going to fly,” he said.

Armando Alegria, an environmental health specialist with the county, told that Light that such a capacity-reduction proposal would have to be approved by the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board before any action could be taken at the county level. He added that the state requires any water appliances installed after 1994 to include low-flow fixtures, which would make 105 gallons per day a reasonable capacity.

Mr. Smith and others at the forum opined that an even better solution would be to transition some homes from septic systems to composting systems, which use no water. 

Regardless of wastewater solutions, homeowners still need to be able to afford to build new or legalize existing second units, while land trusts need money to purchase homes dedicated to low-income housing in perpetuity.

“It all comes down to money,” said Arianne Dar, a panelist and president of the Bolinas Community Land Trust. “If we had an influx of money tomorrow, we could provide housing for the people who need housing in our community.” 

Rachel Ginis, a panelist and founder of the Corte Madera-based housing nonprofit Lilypad Homes, suggested that money could come from broadening the county’s transient occupancy tax—which levies a monthly fee on registered vacation-rental operators—to include more casual AirBnB-style rentals.

“People have a bad habit of buying second, third and fourth homes,” said Ms. Ginis, whose nonprofit facilitates the development of second units. “If they can afford those homes, they can afford a vacancy tax.”

Many vacant homes have been turned into vacation rentals to house the booming tourist population at the cost of housing for people seeking permanent residency. To curb that trend, a group has begun to talk with Supervisor Steve Kinsey on drafting legislation that would restrict vacation rentals to primary residences.

“There are way too many empty houses, and there are way too many families that are leaving,” said Melinda Stone, a panelist and founding member of the group. “We’re trying to make sure we’re not reinventing the wheel, but we realized, as a group of concerned citizens, that we can work on legislation.”

Ms. Stone said the group is basing its legislation on an ordinance passed in 2015 by Santa Monica, which prohibits vacation rentals of less than 30 days unless the resident’s primary occupant is present during a guest’s entire stay. The group’s next meeting is open to the public and is scheduled for June 7 at the Bolinas Commons.

In February, President Barack Obama signed into a law a bill authored by Representative Jared Huffman that would transfer the United States Coast Guard facility in Point Reyes Station to Marin County, which will sell the property to CLAM to preserve 36 units for affordable housing. 

The Coast Guard is completing an environmental review while the county conducts a wastewater study for the property, which does not have a septic system. The property is also not zoned for residential or commercial use—a status CLAM hopes will be changed through an affordable-housing overlay provision to the county’s pending update to its Local Coastal
Program.

Though excited for the acquisition, the group’s president, Kim Thompson, noted that it would be years still before those 36 units become available for occupancy.

“This is a multiple-year process,” she said. “We need to stay engaged at every step of the way.”