In California’s Marin County, Stark Racial Disparities in Housing Persist

By Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

January 7, 2018; Los Angeles Times

“Marin residents often win fights to keep the county’s landscape unspoiled by large, new construction. The county, which sits across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, is home to Point Reyes National Seashore and many other natural splendors,” writes Liam Dillon in the Los Angeles Times. “But residents’ long-standing distaste for development hasn’t led just to the preservation of open spaces.” It has also, Dillon adds, reinforced “decades-old patterns of neighborhood segregation.”

Dillon outlines the history behind Marin County’s racial housing disparities:

Some of Marin’s housing problems can be traced to the 1940s, a time when development in the county was booming. As it did in other communities across the country, the federal government guaranteed bank loans to developers of white-only subdivisions in Marin, promoted the use of racially restrictive covenants on deeds to prevent people of color from buying homes and subsidized white residents’ mortgages but not others, according to a recent report by county officials on housing disparities…

During World War II, Marin City was home to the nation’s first integrated federal housing project where workers in nearby shipyards and their families lived. But after the war, white residents, buoyed by government subsidies, bought homes throughout Marin County while black residents were often prohibited from doing so.

Today, Marin City is physically, economically and racially divided from the rest of the county. U.S. Highway 101 separates it from well-heeled Sausalito, a city just a mile away. Marin City’s median household income of $40,000 is less than half the countywide median. Blacks make up less than four percent of Marin County’s population, but almost 40 percent of Marin City’s.

Dillon notes that while the federal government outlawed housing segregation with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the timing coincided with a “push by Marin activists to restrain growth in the name of an ascendant environmental movement.”

Limiting new housing helped reinforce the results of past overt discrimination. “Now, almost 85 percent of the county is off limits to development. At the same time, affordable housing in Marin County is all but unavailable and racial disparities and segregation continue,” writes Dillon. According to Zillow, Dillon adds, “Marin’s monthly median rental price of $4,323 is the nation’s highest.… After paying rent, Marin’s white households take home nearly $60,000 a year, an amount more than three and a half times that earned by Latino families in the county, according to the Advancement Project, the nonprofit that examined racial inequities in the state.”

The same study found “Marin County is not just the highest-performing county in the state—it also has the highest level of racial disparities.”

Marin County voters favored Hilary Clinton with 77.3 percent of their votes in the 2016 election. But liberal mores don’t necessarily translate into support for affordable housing. Caroline Peattie, executive director of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, observes, “It’s one thing to talk the talk and another to walk the walk. Hillary Clinton is not going to force you to build an affordable housing development in your neighborhood.”

Dillon notes that County officials are working to design policies that may help reduce disparities in the future. Measures being considered include “dedicating more funding toward low-income housing in predominantly white areas and holding some public growth planning meetings in the evenings to encourage broader participation.” Liz Darby, Marin County’s social equity policy coordinator, says, “The county needs to acknowledge our racially segregating and discriminating policies today and historically.”

Yet resistance remains strong. For example, Star Wars creator George Lucas, who owns 4,700 acres of land in Marin, proposed to pay $150 million in 2015 to build 224 homes for low-income seniors and families. That proposal has stalled, seemingly indefinitely. Mary Stompe, executive director of PEP Housing, who had partnered with Lucas, told Dillon that she “fears Lucas is going to abandon the project.… It would have been such an incredible benefit to the community. You have somebody who was willing to pay for the entire project. That never happens.”

Omar Carrera, executive director of a 35-year-old, Marin-based nonprofit called the Canal Alliance, is tired of waiting for affordable housing development to move forward. “They say they want to maintain the roots and characteristics of our county. But what they really are saying is that they want to maintain it as white and wealthy.”—Steve Dubb