California Forum

Marin County gets another smug reprieve from housing quotas

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, smiles after the Assembly approved his measure designating denim as the state's fabric, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, in Sacramento. With the two-year legislative session deadline looming at midnight and hundreds of bills left to vote on, lawmakers took time Wednesday afternoon to debate whether jeans are the right fit for California.
Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, smiles after the Assembly approved his measure designating denim as the state's fabric, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, in Sacramento. With the two-year legislative session deadline looming at midnight and hundreds of bills left to vote on, lawmakers took time Wednesday afternoon to debate whether jeans are the right fit for California. AP

Four decades ago, writer Cyra McFadden perfectly captured the aura of self-absorbed entitlement that envelops Marin County, on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Her 1976 satirical novel, “The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County,” was, columnist George Will wrote, “a Baedeker guide to a desolate region, the monochromatic inner landscape of persons whose life is consumption, of goods and salvations, and whose moral makeup is the curious modern combination of hedonism and earnestness.”

A tenet of Marin County’s guiding ethos is resistance to growth, manifesting itself in a kind of environmental apartheid. Under the guise of preserving a serene environment, Marin County’s residents and politicians use every means possible to avoid building housing that would allow more population growth, particularly low- or moderate-income dwellings.

They’ve been remarkably successful. Between 1969 and 2015, while California’s population was doubling, Marin County’s grew by just 28.4 percent.

About a year after McFadden’s book was published, the county’s resistance to growth backfired. It had refused to develop new water supplies, believing that it would throttle housing development, but when a severe drought struck, it faced the prospect of having almost no water for lush landscaping, hot tubs and other necessities of Marin life.

The emergency solution was to lay a temporary pipeline across the bridge that separates Marin County from Richmond, an industrial community that was – and is – home to many of the lower-wage workers who provide Marin County’s services.

Neither the drought nor the irony of the pipeline curbed Marin’s almost cult-like fervor to wall itself off. Housing proposals continued to draw fierce opposition, in the name of environmental protection, of course.

When California’s housing shortfall became acute and the state started getting serious about housing quotas it had assigned to communities, Marin County’s assemblyman, Democrat Marc Levine, carried a 2014 bill to exempt it until 2023, arguing that Marin needed more time to get it right.

However, without waiting for a scheduled report on the county’s progress on meeting its housing quotas, Levine persuaded legislative leaders last month to insert into a budget trailer bill (Senate Bill 106) a brief passage that extends Marin County’s exemption from quotas for an additional five years, until 2028.

By being attached to a trailer bill that contained many other provisions, rather than offered as a stand-alone policy matter, the Marin exemption stood a much better chance and is one of many examples of how trailer bills are blatantly misused.

The special treatment for Marin drew sharp criticism from housing advocates, particularly those seeking more shelter for low- and moderate-income families.

Levine argued anew that Marin doesn’t want to duck its housing responsibilities, and just needs more time to do it in a way that doesn’t damage the county’s sensibilities.

Republicans were also critical. “They (Marin residents) love their lifestyles but don’t bother us with the low-income housing,” Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said during a brief hearing.

But Democrats including Sens. Toni Atkins of San Diego, and Jim Beall of San Jose, voted for it, even though they posture as fierce housing advocates, and carry high-profile housing bills. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it.

For at least another decade, therefore, Marin’s residents can smugly assume that their bucolic lifestyles will not be marred by having more neighbors who don’t make as much money and, you know, just don’t fit in.

For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary. CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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