In his Sept. 13 column titled “Supply and demand, a simple but brutal concept,” Victor Reyes uses the metaphor of an apple vendor to illustrate the capitalist market principle of supply and demand. Given 10 apples and a variable number of consumers, prices will reach a market equilibrium. Simple economics.
The same principle, he argues, illuminates the problem with the local real estate market—given a shortage of supply and an abundance of demand, the result is a staggering inflation of cost.
Yet beneath the calculus of supply and demand lurks a complex set of ethical questions, political confrontations and policy trade-offs that reach into the heart of community identity in West Marin.
I’ve lived in Woodacre for most of my life. I passed through the Open Classroom and, like many of my classmates, was reared by adults who imparted in me both a strong sense of local heritage and a deep conviction for environmental stewardship.
Growing up among members of the Marin Conservation League, hearing my uncle’s stories of the environmental activism of the ’60s and ’70s, I learned never to take for granted the pristine hills, marshlands and shores of West Marin.
Now, at 25, having lived variously in rural Iowa, Seattle and Washington, D.C., I cherish the special properties of our community—the unparalleled beauty, the radical educational stripe, the politics, the strong sense of closeness—even more dearly.
That’s why I’ve been troubled by the dynamics Mr. Reyes alluded to in his letter: Soaring housing prices leading to rapid neighborhood turnover and a growing sense of dissolution in the community. As Marin housing prices continue to shatter records, many West Marin families are being priced out of the greater Bay Area—or are quitting while they’re ahead by taking advantage of the booming real estate market.
Because purchasing power is raced, gendered and classed, West Marin, with its shortage of housing options, is today undergoing the same process of income intensification, exclusion and marginalization playing out in every major city throughout the world. New neighbors arrive, necessarily of greater means, and, through no malice of theirs, contribute to the continued walling-off of West Marin as a sanctuary for privilege and endangered marshland birds.
With the transfer of property from the old generation to the new inevitably comes the adulteration of collective memory and heritage. The ironic dimension of this is plain: One can imagine a not-so-distant future in which the shortage of housing in West Marin, legislated by yesteryear’s environmental protections, will bring about the eviction (or, more realistically, the willing relocation) of the very people who won those environmental protections in the first place, and around whom the community was originally organized.
Is the problem, then, that onerous environmental regulations are inhibiting the creation of new housing and thus precluding diversity and access in West Marin? I don’t think so.
Even if we relaxed requirements and opened up new land for development, it would be a stopgap measure at best, a land-grab at worst. The housing supply would still be finite, if at a new higher ceiling. The rule of supply and demand, the same economic dynamic that landed us where we are now, would remain unaltered. The can would be kicked down the road.
The problem lies with the logic of global (and local) capitalism that has forced us to choose between depleting our environment and providing inclusive housing options.
West Marin, nexus as we are to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, will be the sluiceway of new wealth and bodies for as long as they continue to flood the Bay Area.
We seem to stand at an unfortunate crossroads, an ethical paradox, faced with an impossible choice between a principled commitment to environmental conservation and a desire to make the community accessible, affordable and democratic.
Rather than allow these fault lines to divide us, many have brought forward a high caliber of compassion, outreach and creative problem solving—proposals to ease restrictions around accessory dwelling units or to convert legacy Coast Guard housing into affordable dwellings are examples. This is perhaps to be expected. West Marin has always, after all, shown exceptional creativity in finding the middle way, or else the tangent.
Yet my own generation’s voice has been too often absent from the discussion. Perhaps this is also to be expected, given the number of us who have left.
But for those who remain, the legacy of today’s decisions will devolve to us tomorrow. Ours is a present hurtling toward environmental apocalypse and the entrenchment of a wicked system of capitalist exploitation—global specters always locally revealed.
Such conditions cry out for a font of local political action among young people—we who stand to either lose or gain all, and for whom the crisis of affordability is most acute.
Distance matters when viewing a painting, and so too with politics. West Marin’s youth, now several generations removed from the activism that originally shaped the community, may be standing at precisely the right distance. Close enough to care, yet far away enough to see anew, to act anew and to make anew the community and the world to which we belong.
Alex McNeil is a longtime resident of the San Geronimo Valley and a student of political science at San Francisco State University. He lives in Woodacre.