In 1975, my wife and I moved here into a modest yet comfortable two-bedroom home in picturesque Corte Madera with an unobstructed view of the bay tidelands and nearby San Quentin State Prison from our back deck that alarmed more than a few of our guests.
We were living the middle class dream.
When we traded it in a few years later to accommodate a growing family it fetched nearly twice the price. The house’s value has no doubt tripled in value several times since.
The views remain and the prison is still open for business.
What is disappearing, however, is the middle class as we knew it in much of Marin 40 years ago if defined by housing affordability, income levels and the evolving population mix.
Marin has undergone some dramatic changes and controversies in that span, some regarding the still unresolved issues surrounding housing developments which affected the outcome of the last supervisorial elections.
We have indeed created a bit of paradise, but the waters are roiling in otherwise mellow Marin and the admittance fee has become quite steep. It is unclear, if polled, what percentage of Marinites would support housing diversity in their communities. But my guess is they outnumber opponents.
However, the real issue is the nature of the choices, if they are meaningful, and if the parameters set forth decades ago when there actually were genuinely affordable options for the middle class are even relevant today.
There is no evidence of a hidden conspiracy to keep out newcomers anymore than there are avaricious developers massing at the gates ready to exploit vulnerable, cash-starved communities.
Marin’s housing woes are the result of the natural forces of supply and demand notwithstanding below-average population growth; an unparalleled abundance of beauty and hospitable climate; and a sudden influx of the newly-wealthy outbidding one another in a race to the real estate offices.
What passes today for the middle class are lower-wage workers and first-time earners in their 20s and early 30s, many with good jobs and making more than their parents did who can ill afford the escalating costs of living in Marin and the Bay Area.
A significant proportion have college and even advanced degrees, but lack the earning power necessary to buy homes even at the lower end of Marin’s housing scale.
Along with these young adults are long-term residents, many on fixed incomes, who have little enthusiasm for community planning models that would further drain municipalities, which lack the taxing powers to pay for increased service demands and view all high-density developments with natural suspicion.
We perpetuate the affordability myth by proposing solutions that are unrealistic, would make little dent in the housing deficit for those in the middle class who are becoming permanently priced out of the market, and only accentuates the growing gap between the very wealthy and those much less so.
Diverse communities are socially healthier and more sustainable over time. But let’s bring some honesty to the conversation. We need to devise formulas relevant to the changing population — not for one that no longer exists.