The town of Marshall, where I have lived and farmed all my life, is becoming a ghost town. Less than 30 percent of its houses are now occupied by full-time residents. We are so small, we are no longer included in the U.S. census. When I was growing up, we had a balance of farmers, teachers, fishermen, small business owners, technical workers and professionals living in the community. Now, because of the popularity and unchecked growth of second homes offered as short-term rentals in the area, average people can no longer afford to live there.
As a farmer, business owner and West Marin resident, I would like to share my perspective on sustaining rural communities, and why we need the Marin County Board of Supervisors’ leadership now to help solve our county’s affordable housing crisis.
In a recent workshop on preserving housing affordability, I asked the Board of Supervisors to put stronger limits on short-term rentals in Marin County. An accounting of how many days a unit is rented should be required, and a limit of 90 days per year should be imposed if the owner does not live on the site.
As people have left the community, the basic services and infrastructure needed to make this place livable for farmers have dwindled or disappeared. The average age of farmers in the county is approaching 60, and we need young farmers to take their place. Without the support of schools, mechanics, local-serving markets, agriculture-support businesses and a permanent community, how are we going to attract the next generation of farmers to this community?
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Marshall implemented plans to balance the needs of the agricultural community and the tourist economy, creating a healthy mix of visitors and long-term residents. Those plans are not being enforced by the county today. We are not going to build our way out of this crisis. We need solutions that deal with the existing housing stock: a commitment from the county to regulate short-term rentals that will allow people to live in the community and reduce the speculation that has taken over the real estate market.
Farming is vital to the economic prosperity of Marin County. The annual estimated tax revenue contributed by the agriculture in Marin is $35 million. By comparison, the estimated tax revenue from short-term rentals is $1.4 million.
In order to preserve the agricultural character of Marin and revitalize the rural communities that contribute so much to our economy, it is crucial that the board provide leadership and regulation to make permanent housing affordable again.
Albert Straus, who lives in Marshall, is the founder and C.E.O. of Straus Family Creamery, the first organically certified creamery on the West Coast.