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Rural Gentrification

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We talk a lot about the housing problems of the contemporary cities. But it’s not only the cities. At least in some places, it is also a big problem in rural areas. I grant you that Marin County is not your typical rural area, but what Marin represents is what we are seeing in a lot of places in the American West, from the Willamette Valley to the Colorado mountains to the Utah deserts. Amenity migrants move in, housing prices skyrocket, and there’s no place for the workers who labor in these areas to live.

One day in fall of 2019, my family and I made one of our frequent trips along the winding pastoral roads of West Marin to spend a day hiking to the beach. The early morning air was cool, the California Buckeye had lost their leaves and the Big Leaf maple were turning shades of orange, red, and yellow. We passed several pelotons of bicyclists, cohorts of motorcycles enjoying the curves, and then a string of fifteen bright-colored Lamborghinis raced by. When we arrived in Point Reyes Station, the town bustled with people drifting from the bookstore to the bakery to the specialty food stores. As on most weekends, groups of cyclists in Lycra and bikers in leather collected on the sidewalk to enjoy a fresh scone and a coffee, and Porsches outnumbered pickups.

West Marin—the northwestern corner of Marin County—is only an hour from San Francisco and East Bay cities.[1] Despite its proximity to the urban metropolis, it feels remote, and two-lane coastal or country roads are the only access routes.[2] It is rural in appearance—mostly ranchlands and small towns whose physical landscape gives few clues of a gentrified population—but it is no longer the relatively isolated agricultural area it once was. West Marin is experiencing profound socioeconomic changes that are reflective of the landscape of growing wealth and expanding poverty across the Bay Area.

Rising global inequality, the global housing crisis, and the epidemic of foreclosures put the spotlight on gentrification in cities around the world.[3] Gentrification is often thought of as an urban phenomenon, yet in Northern California, what’s happening in rural Marin County—where there is gaping income inequality and a severe housing squeeze—is an essential part of the bigger picture of gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole. It illuminates the complex interrelationships between urban and rural areas—and how they give rise to and are intertwined with each other.

Over several decades, as the technology industry has transformed the Bay Area, the influx of people and capital into urban areas has played an important role in shaping rural West Marin: recreation and agricultural tourism, both in part initiated and cultivated by urbanites, draw tourists from surrounding areas; second-home owners and short-term rentals have driven housing prices up and removed rental units from the housing market. But while stories about gentrification often disproportionately focus on the in-migration of wealth and the displacement of working class communities, in doing so, they overlook another critical aspect of gentrification: dual migration, or the in-migration of workers who come to meet the needs of the service economy. Several streams of in-migrants have made West Marin what it is today, but the Mexican immigrants and their Mexican American families who began to arrive in the 1960s are those who sustain the agricultural and tourist economies of gentrifying West Marin.

The whole essay is well-worth your time, with lots of attention paid to things such as what passes for agricultural worker housing. Meanwhile, well, enjoy your wine!

When Point Reyes National Seashore was created, it became the first national park to allow agriculture within its boundaries—still a controversial decision. Ranching families continued operations under a special permit called “Reservation of Use and Occupancy” (RUO). Many RUOs have now expired and have become “lease permits,” which still allow ranching, but do not allow ranchers to provide housing to people who are not working for their ranch.[33] From the community’s perspective, it’s a “slap in the face” when the park cracks down on ranches that provide housing.[34]

Many people feel that the housing crisis in West Marin has been aggravated by the loss of housing on NPS land in recent years.[35] Dairy rancher Albert Straus (his ranch is in Marshall, not on NPS land), has been active in speaking out about the lack of housing for ranch and other local workers, and the repercussions for the community. With the help of local historian Dewey Livingston, Straus documented the housing units lost on NPS and state park properties in the last 50 years—far beyond loss of housing on ranches due to permit changes. They tallied about 135 structures that had served as homes that the park service either removed or abandoned beyond repair. Because creating new housing in West Marin is so difficult, making better use of existing housing is often the best chance for increasing the housing stock, but by doing away with park housing, the NPS is removing existing housing. The loss of housing on ranches affects not just ranch workers, but also often other local workers, and often means displacement for a whole family.

With housing so difficult to find, many residents don’t complain about substandard conditions or report them to the authorities, for fear of finding themselves with no housing at all. Agricultural workers, many of whose housing is tied to their work, and who may be undocumented, can be even more reticent to complain, as they could find themselves without housing or work.[36] People often end up feeling grateful that they have housing, a social worker told me, since they aren’t paying out-of-pocket—even though it may be in terrible condition. But the housing isn’t “free,” she points out. The cost of housing is reflected in the reduced salary of the workers.[37]

Workplace housing can generate not only a sense of unwarranted gratefulness, but also tangible worker vulnerability: if ranch workers lose their job, they lose their whole community. Several interviewees described having to leave West Marin because of a disagreement or dispute with a boss or co-worker in an on-site housing situation. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable, and many agricultural workers in West Marin are undocumented immigrants or have family members who are undocumented. Even families who have been here many years are sometimes undocumented. One person told me: “I can tell you that there are families who have been living here twenty years and don’t have their papers, and I think that ranches take advantage of those employees. Not all ranches. There are a few that are better, provide a decent place to live.”[38]

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