“Know the hands that feed you”: Gentrification and labor migration in West Marin
Gentrification and dual migration
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. Despite its proximity to the urban metropolis, it feels remote, and two-lane coastal or country roads are the only access routes. 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. 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.
Migration to West Marin
Before European explorers and Mexican settlers arrived in West Marin, Coast Miwok people lived in the area for thousands of years. Shellmounds date the history of Coast Miwok people in Marin to 5,000 years ago, while oral histories date the lineage as twice as long. More than 100 villages, some with several hundred inhabitants, dotted the point’s sloping mesas, the shores of Drakes Estero, and the hills across Tomales Bay.
The earliest non indigenous settlers in Marin County were known as Californios, families who had received land grants from Spain and Mexico in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the mid-1800s, immigrants from all over the world flooded to California during the Gold Rush; many who came to make their fortune from gold discovered that ranching would be more profitable than mining, as demand for local products grew with the great influx of forty-niners to San Francisco. Irish, Swiss-Italian, and Portuguese immigrants found their way to West Marin, where they ran dairy ranches. Chinese laborers also ended up in West Marin, building the narrow-gauge railroad that would run between Sausalito and Sonoma County, up the east shore of Tomales Bay; many Chinese settled and worked on potato and dairy ranches and as cowboys or fishermen. Later, in the early 1900s, Japanese families started farms on the peninsula, until they were interned in prison camps in the 1940s.
In the nineteenth century, West Marin’s year-round grasses and cool maritime temperatures made it the most productive dairy land in California. By the late 1800s, it was a center of agricultural production for San Francisco, which, as a result of the Gold Rush, had become a financial hub of the state. Wealthy families from the city retreated to summer residences in West Marin, beginning a tradition of second homes in the small coastal towns. In the 1920s, some urbanites began to commute from West Marin to jobs in the city. By the 1950s, some summer people had retired to their vacation homes and lived there year-round. West Marin towns also appealed to artists, who were drawn by the scenery as well as the quiet lifestyle and still relatively cheap land. Socially and politically, West Marin was a conservative area, comprised mostly of ranchers and others involved in agriculture, along with a smattering of artists, retirees, and summer residents.
In 1962, Point Reyes National Seashore was established and began to attract visitors from the nearby urban centers of the Bay Area. Over time, a small tourist industry around outdoor recreation took hold. Also beginning in the 1960s, back-to-the-land hippies began to arrive, fundamentally changing West Marin and bringing the social and political flavor associated with West Marin today. “It was the people who came in the 1960s and ‘70s who made it liberal,” one long-time resident told me. The members of the 1960s counterculture did more than bring different politics and professions; they also founded some of the essential community institutions, including the community center, the health clinic, and the radio station.
Another stream of migrants began to arrive around the same time as the counterculture, with as significant an influence, though less visible: Mexican immigrants who first came to work on the dairy ranches. In the decade after the seashore was protected, surrounding agricultural land was also protected, through a county zoning mandate and—a few years later—a successful agricultural land trust. As a result, unlike in many rural gentrifying areas, agriculture maintained its hold in West Marin. In order to compete with industrial agriculture in the rest of California, Marin’s small family ranches found ways to connect to the growing foodie culture of the Bay Area. Beginning in the early 2000s, an agricultural-based tourist economy flourished; West Marin increasingly became a destination for tourists and second-home owners, not only because of its natural beauty and protected seashore, but also because of its local food economy and agricultural attractions.
Camilo Hermosillo is said to have been the first Mexican immigrant to settle in West Marin. He came to the United States with the Bracero program in 1952, but later returned to Mexico. In 1964, he made his way to the Marin/Sonoma border, where he found work on a dairy ranch. Hermosillo was from Jalostotitlán (Jalos), a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Others from Jalos soon followed him and found work on the dairy ranches as milkers. Point Reyes became the primary destination for the Mexican immigrants from Jalostotitlán, and an extended network of migrants from Jalos and surrounding villages began to settle in West Marin.
The local newspaper estimated that in the early 1970s, the Spanish-speaking population in West Marin was 300 and that by the early 1980s, it had tripled. One immigrant who arrived in the 1980s told me that when she came, “only the people who worked on the farms were Latino. So it was very hard to see any Latinos working at the Palace Market [local grocery store] or at hotels.” Over time, two things changed: the young men who immigrated from Mexico began to bring their wives and girlfriends and start families in West Marin; and the need for more service workers grew as visitors to the area increased and the tourist economy expanded.
Over the next few decades, immigrants from Mexico continued to come for jobs on the dairies. Others found work on oyster farms in Tomales Bay. Family members found work in West Marin towns—in restaurants, lodging, stores, housekeeping, and landscaping. As the children of Mexican immigrants have grown up in West Marin, fluent in English and with the opportunity to go to school and continue with higher education, second- and third-generation Mexican Americans have gone on to find jobs with the National Park Service, in schools and banks, pharmacies, and other professions. “Now you will see Latinos working in every corner of this area.”
Mexicans and their Mexican American families have been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. They have also transformed West Marin—in workforce, school population, and community presence—yet they face difficulties that are accentuated by gentrification, including lack of housing, food insecurity, invisibility in the workplace and misunderstanding on the part of the Anglo community.
In West Marin, gentrification—in-migration of upper-income residents, displacement of workers, and the increasing gap between housing prices and wages—has gone hand-in-hand with the preservation of agriculture, and agriculture itself has become gentrified. The productive landscape and its products are principal amenities, drawing visitors and amenity migrants who romanticize and consume them as much as the scenic vistas, beaches, kayaking, and hiking opportunities in the national seashore.
But agricultural labor, mostly done by Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, is largely invisible to the tourists who come for ranch and farm tours, and to others who consume the specialty cheeses and grass-fed meats produced in West Marin. Publicity for ranches and farms, local foodie tours, and websites about local farming and culinary attractions all praise the hard work of ranching families and farmer-owners, but wage laborers are rarely, if ever, mentioned. One website written by a self-described “passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture, artisan food producers, and craft beverage makers” posts recipes, articles about heirloom vegetables and local farmers markets, and stories about local ranchers and artisan cheese- and cidermakers. She describes the people she writes about as: “…farmers [who] are passionate and committed in everything they do. Many come from families that have worked the land for generations; others have left traditional careers in search of a simpler, more authentic existence. All of them feel a connection to the earth that threads to their core.”
Similarly, publicity for a local food and farm tour company quotes a rancher and cheesemaker as describing her favorite part of her “job” as “working in the cheese room, especially in the early morning while the [animals] are being milked next door in the parlor.” When I spoke with the rancher, I asked her to tell me about her employees who do the milking and cheesemaking. She described to me her first employee, a Mexican immigrant who lives in a manufactured home on the ranch with his wife and two adult sons—both of whom work in restaurants. “We learned [our animals] together,” she told me, indicating how important this worker is to her operation. She later hired another full-time employee, a Mexican man who lived in a low-rent apartment in Petaluma with other day laborers. She described him as an “awesome worker”—he worked six days a week for four years, never missed a day and never arrived a minute late. He drove 30 minutes each way and sometimes worked a split shift. Employees like these, and their work, are not mentioned in the glossy spreads that idealize the work of the family rancher.
Workers are also often left out of community conversations about local agriculture. I spoke with one resident who described to me a series of conversations, over the course of a year, about agricultural sustainability. He recounted his attempts to convince the steering committee that workers should be included in the conversation, and the committee’s response that it would be too controversial. “It was very frustrating. We all say Marin is the most progressive place in the world, but sustainability is on the back of the workers.”
Similarly, in 2009 a local bookstore made “farming and the rural life” the focus of the “Geography of Hope” conference, an annual event that “gathers leading writers and activists together for a feast of readings, discussions, and activities to inspire and deepen an understanding of the relationships between people and place.” Though the theme was agriculture, labor was not one of the topics. Before the symposium, someone anonymously put posters all over the town of Point Reyes Station calling into question the sustainability of West Marin farms and ranches. The posters were titled, “Whose Geography of Hope” and asked, “what about farm labor?” It publicized that some agricultural laborers “live in broken down trailers with moldy walls, old wiring, and cesspools,” and that “nearly half the families coming to the Point Reyes Food Pantry are Latinos who work and live on local organic farms and dairies.” The poster went on to say:
“Know the Hands That Feed You” the advertising goes… Those hands are brown. They are the hands of campesinos …who dig the soil; birth, feed, and milk the cows; …make the local artisan cheeses; and seed, harvest, shuck, and pack the shellfish for your gourmet feasts. These men, women, and children are not on the promotional posters. They are nowhere to be seen on the farm tours…
A good deal of recent literature exposes the dark side of local and organic agriculture, including food insecurity among agricultural workers and the exploitation of workers who produce supposedly safer and healthier food. It makes clear the link between worker exploitation and their existence “in the shadows.”
A social worker in West Marin said to me, “When workers are invisible, you can do anything you want with them.” Removing workers from the public face of gentrified agriculture makes hiding working conditions easier: housing, long commutes, complicated worker-employer relations, and difficult access to food are all “invisible” parts of the of the idyllic pastoral scenes and delicious local food that draw tourists and second-home owners to West Marin.
Affordable housing in West Marin (a detour)
Resistance to development is ubiquitous in affluent suburbs throughout the Bay Area and across the nation, but Marin County residents are particularly fierce in their opposition, especially to multi-unit and affordable housing. Every seven years, the state of California calculates a Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) based on projected population growth. For the 2007 to 2014 cycle, the Bay Area issued permits for only 57 percent of the 214,500 units the state mandated. Marin County issued permits for only 32 percent of the units required by the RHNA, lower than all other Bay Area counties. In recent years, Marin residents have rejected several proposals for projects that would have provided low-income housing in the county, citing concerns about traffic, water supply, impacts on schools, loss of open space, and “community character.” While developing more housing units is complicated by institutional and infrastructure factors, for the most part, these concerns are smokescreens for simple racism and classism.
All of these things come into play in unincorporated West Marin, where the housing crisis is felt even more acutely than in the rest of the county. Institutional factors (zoning, Coastal Commission regulations, costs imposed by the county) and geographic and infrastructure factors (septic systems, water availability, and transportation limitations) create obstacles that are real limitations to development. In addition, land conservation has not only reduced available acreage, but even more importantly, has made West Marin a desirable place to visit and to live, which both raises prices and directs supply toward short-term rentals. It has also given rise to a community with a strong vision of what the physical and demographic landscape should look like, a community that aims to influence development in both formal (e.g., county development regulations) and informal (e.g., community pressure) ways.
The large low-wage workforce necessary to maintain the economy in West Marin accentuates the need for affordable housing, and second-home owners and short-term rentals dominate the housing rental market and capture the supply. Adding to the lack of housing is the imbalance in wages and housing costs. Earnings in the agricultural and service sectors are not sufficient to pay for housing in West Marin. Within Marin County (which is a notoriously high earning county), West Marin has some of the lowest median personal earnings. The census tract that encompasses Point Reyes Station, Nicasio, Tomales, and Dillon Beach has a median income of $32,280. Nearby Bolinas and Stinson Beach were slightly lower, at $31,766, and Olema and Inverness slightly higher, at $33,037. The median personal income in all of West Marin in 2012 was $32,000. Other Marin County towns are at the other end of the spectrum: the median personal income in Tiburon is $80,595; in Mill Valley it is $75,808, Ross is $64,378. When broken down by race, Latino earnings countywide average just under $23,800, whereas the median personal income for whites countywide is $51,000.
One woman who works in social services in West Marin told me that even though workers generally earn more than minimum wage, it’s not enough. “I don’t think anyone pays minimum wage in the area… , I have to be honest. They pay above. But people are making $12 an hour.” An income of about $3000 a month or less is normal for a Latino family of two wage earners in West Marin, but for a family of four, rents are about $3000. “No one can afford the rents compared to the incomes—it’s a huge gap.”
Housing for agricultural workers
For agricultural workers, housing has been precarious for several decades. In the 1980s, Mark Dowie, West Marin resident and investigative journalist, wrote an exposé for the San Francisco Examiner Magazine on the miserable conditions of ranch worker housing in West Marin. “On many, although not all the ranches, housing quality was pretty terrible…trailers mostly, some hooked up to water via a garden hose and with inadequate sewage disposal.” It was common to see raw sewage around the houses. At that time, unlike on the dairy ranches today, workers were charged rent for their housing, although they were paid minimum wage—about $3 per hour at that time. In addition, workers had little recourse to improve conditions; ranchers had agreed among themselves not to hire workers away from each other, making workers essentially indentured laborers.
Since then, many ranches have made improvements. However, over three decades later, housing for ranch workers continues to be difficult to obtain, is often in poor conditions, and puts workers in a vulnerable position. The problem is multifaceted—related to the high cost of housing in West Marin and the lack of availability, and inadequate housing conditions, and compounded by the fact that many workers are undocumented—making them more vulnerable.
Most dairies provide on-site housing because ranches tend to be far from other housing options and milking hours are demanding: milkers usually have two shifts, one beginning at three or four a.m. and another beginning midday. Many ranch workers prefer to live on the ranches where they work rather than commute long distances to work. But too often, despite the improvements, ranch housing means overcrowded, unpermitted units, and substandard conditions. Many units are “under the radar”—in garages, barns, commercial spaces, or recreational vehicles. In addition, ranch housing is important not just for the workers who are essential to the agricultural economy of West Marin, but also for family members who are indispensable to other sectors of the economy, as they may work in restaurants, markets, bakeries, landscaping companies, and other jobs in towns throughout West Marin. Often families squeeze into on-ranch housing so as not to separate the family, or because rents are so high for other units. Despite its problems, ranch housing is one of the few affordable options in West Marin.[xxxii]
Ranches that are on national seashore land add another element to the housing crunch for workers in West Marin. 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. From the community’s perspective, it’s a “slap in the face” when the park cracks down on ranches that provide housing.
Many people feel that the housing crisis in West Marin has been aggravated by the loss of housing on NPS land in recent years. 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. 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.
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.”
Low-income workers in West Marin not only struggle with housing more than others in the community, but also with access to healthy and affordable food. In 2015 the Marin Food Policy Council explored equitable access to food in the county and identified West Marin as a top priority for where to focus their food security efforts. The size of West Marin (over 50 percent of the county in land mass) and the sparseness of the population make getting to the grocery store difficult because of travel time and the cost of gas. Low-income families have to shop less frequently (once a month), which means that they have to purchase mostly packaged food. But offerings in West Marin are limited. Local markets (including a small supermarket in Point Reyes Station, and several small markets in Inverness, Inverness Park, and other nearby towns) stock food that is not well matched to the needs or incomes of families in West Marin: they carry few staples—and those that they do stock are expensive, because of the stores’ own costs. The council also found that the food sold in Point Reyes Station, Marshall, Inverness, and other West Marin towns, rather than serving locals, caters to a bifurcated tourist market: either people who are recreating in the area, usually camping or traveling along the coast in an RV, and looking for lower-priced, easy-to-prepare meals; or travelers or second-home owners who are looking for high-end foodie-type foods, like locally produced artisan cheeses, specialty crackers, cured meats, and fruit preserves. The council also found an overabundance of alcohol, tobacco, and junk food in West Marin stores.
Another barrier to eating well for low-income families in West Marin is that many stores do not accept (or are not even aware of) food assistance programs. The council found that not all grocery stores in West Marin accept CalFresh (California’s version of SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). At the time of the study, no stores in West Marin accepted WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) (though several thought they did). Many low-income families rely on WIC and not being able to use it at any West Marin grocery stores also means longer drives to buy food.
The barriers to access to healthy food in West Marin mean that ranch and farm workers are not able to eat or feed to their families the food that they produce. It is particularly striking—though not unusual—in an area celebrated for quality ingredients, boutique artisanal production, and sustainable agriculture that the workers not only can’t afford to eat what they produce, but also have difficultly accessing healthy and affordable food. While this difference between low-income and high-income residents reflects the particulars of gentrification in West Marin, it is a widespread phenomenon among agricultural workers in locations all over the United States.
Tensions in the community
Several people I talked to in West Marin described the community as made up of three primary segments: ranchers, newer arrivals (hippies, ex-hippies, second-home owners, and others), and Latinos. A Mexican immigrant who has worked with the community since the 1980s told me: “I see three groups here: the ranchers, who are fairly conservative; the newcomers—hippies, and those who bought property after; and the Latinos. Among the Latinos, there are two groups: one that works on the ranches and another that works in the hotels and food services.” She described her sense of the relations between ranchers and Latinos and newcomers and Latinos: “The ranchers, normally, don’t participate in any event—or haven’t until now participated in any of the community events that I’ve coordinated or that I’ve seen. Not one rancher.” She described their sense of power as the boss, the employer, as pervading relationships and impeding social interactions and went on to say that “with the community of newcomers and the hippie community, they accept more the [Latino] community” and support attempts to bring together Anglos and Latinos. “And then there are others who have been here for a long time…in Inverness or Point Reyes and they are the ones who support the most the Latino movement. Definitely, they are the most involved, or at least they are working so that there is more friendliness.” Other community members commented on how segregated the community is. One non-Latino who moved from California’s Central Valley, where there is a large Latino population and agricultural sector, observed that compared to her experience there, “this place is surprisingly segregated in its white and Latino life.”
Tensions over class and ethnic background are not explicitly stated, but often pervade interactions among community members. A recent criticism from the Anglo establishment demonstrated the gulf between the communities. Ostensibly with the intention of being inclusive, many began to complain that Latinos do not participate as members of the Board of Directors for the numerous non-profits in West Marin. To the Latinos I spoke with, this demonstrates a myopic view of what integrating Latinos into the community might mean and is an unrealistic starting point for doing so. Many Latinos are commuting long distances or are working more than one job to afford a rental in West Marin. Many have children. Many, because of their level of education and facility with English, are not comfortable with the idea of being on a board with highly educated Anglos. Even Latinos who were born and grew up here, one interviewee told me, are often reticent to participate in the community. “They’ve gone to school here… And you wouldn’t believe it, but there’s an idea that ‘I don’t speak well.’” The sense of insecurity, she believes, is rooted in cultural and linguistic differences. “It’s not that they don’t speak well… Our Latino community uses a lot of Spanglish, our Anglo community doesn’t. So that’s the difference.”
Another Latino resident from Puerto Rico, who has been active in the Anglo and Latino communities and has served on many boards, told me that his experience has been different from most Mexican immigrants in part because he hasn’t had the difficulties of citizenship and documentation. Apart from most Latinos having other more immediate concerns, he told me, if people cared about Latinos, they would not want to put them in situations in which they wouldn’t be comfortable.
Prejudices emerge in other ways as well. One woman I spoke with told me that she is surprised how patronizing toward the Latino community the board members of an affordable housing group have been. Their comments reveal at best unfamiliarity with the Latino community, and in many cases, deeper discrimination and often defensiveness. In interviews, several non-Latinos expressed ignorance about the Latino community and little idea of how to overcome what they see as a cultural gulf. One non-Latino told me that it’s difficult to know who to approach within the Latino community and how to approach them. She said that it wasn’t for lack of trying that the two communities remain separate, “but there is a gulf there and people are unsure of how to reach across cultures.” For her, the Latino community is hard to reach, especially since she doesn’t speak Spanish. “The Latino community can be opaque,” she said. “I feel pretty unprepared. I often feel like it’s not even my place to try to reach across [the gulf] and work with an entire community who has a different background.” She went on to say, “A weeklong bootcamp on how to talk to people in other cultures would be good,” as a precursor to making an overture to the Latino community. Another non-Latino I interviewed noted that “Hispanics are such a tight community,” organized around “nuts and bolts issues” like food and medical care. “They feel like they already have community and don’t need ours.” Anglos are seeking community, he said, but don’t have the same cohesion as the Latino community in West Marin.
A Mexican woman who has worked in West Marin for over 30 years told me that she feels that the white community has little understanding of the Latino community and is quick to criticize cultural differences. On holidays like Mexican Independence Day (September 16), or other celebrations, she says, “I’ve heard complaints about ‘a lot of noise.’ And that is true… But they are cultural differences.” And while she says that a lack of understanding about Mexican history and Mexican culture is at the root of their complaints, she also wonders why they can’t, in the meantime, enjoy the celebration or even simply say, “OK, it’s one day, and I’m going to cover my ears—tolerance.”
The housing crisis is another situation pervaded by underlying prejudices. One non-Latino resident, a renter who has had to move numerous times, expressed a deep-seated feeling of difference between herself and Latinos who also struggle to find and maintain affordable housing. She commented that Latino workers are most affected by high housing costs, but tried to justify the differential access to housing. She told me about three Latino men she works with who commute to their jobs in Point Reyes Station. Two come from San Rafael (about 40 minutes each way) and one from Tomales (about 30 minutes each way). They work hard and they need to feed their families, she said, but still, to her they seem different: “They’re just in a different realm. It’s just evident that there is a hierarchy,” she said.
She linked belonging in the community, and perhaps also right to housing, to “rootedness.” Her grandparents bought a house in Inverness and retired there in 1962, and she spent her childhood summers there. She explained that she considers being rooted in place essential. When I asked her what that means for workers, who need to live in a place for practical reasons—like a reasonable commute to their job—but may or may not have generational ties, she responded vaguely that housing for workers is “complex because it has to do with race and class,” and that that most people in West Marin don’t want to have a conversation about race and class.
Discussions and community meetings about housing are largely segregated as well, presented as either ranchworker housing for Latino families or housing for seniors or for long-time residents who can’t afford to stay. One housing activist told me, “It’s rare out here to have a meeting where you feel like you’re in it together.” A member of a group that addresses the problem of short-term rentals acknowledged to me that the group has not interacted with the Latino community. She was defensive about my inquiry, adding that the group was “not designed to solve the cultural problems of West Marin.”
The discourse among non-Latinos suggests that they view the housing issue for Latinos as different from that for “locals.” Locals is a vague term but is mostly used to mean non-Latino residents who have lived in West Marin for many years. People make false distinctions when they talk about housing for those “who grew up here” who have been displaced and for Latino families—often most affected by the housing crisis—as though they could not be the same. Yet, as one woman emphasized to me, many of the Latino families who are displaced grew up in West Marin too, the second- or third-generation families of Mexicans who immigrated in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and they are as much locals as anyone else. The assumption that the “locals” and “the kids who grew up here who can’t afford to stay” are only white, are mistaken. The local kids who can’t afford to stay are as likely to be second or third generation families of Mexicans, “but in terms of the way people talk, you will hear that distinction.”
The conversations about housing may be separate for other reasons as well. Evening meetings are difficult to attend for Latino families who may have long commutes (to Petaluma or Santa Rosa), or who work two jobs or a job that doesn’t have a nine-to-five schedule, or who have young children who need care. Language may also be a barrier, as well as the separation that permeates the community in general. As one housing activist told me, the problem of housing for the two communities is often treated separately, “because we’re already thinking in a bifurcated way.”
Displacement and exclusionary displacement
We rely so much for everything now on the Hispanic population. All the people who work in the stores are Hispanics and all the people who we rely on for services, and yet there’s a commute into West Marin on Petaluma-Point Reyes Road every morning.
In many cases, working-class migrations in gentrified places become daily in- and out-migrations of workers who can’t afford to live near their jobs. If a worker loses existing housing, the chances of finding something affordable in West Marin are slim. Loss of housing can occur because of a lease change on a ranch within the national seashore, as I describe above, or because a ranch downsized operations when it shifted to organic production and reduced the number of workers as well as the herd size. Other families have been evicted from ranches because of substandard housing conditions. Not just agricultural workers are affected when ranch housing is lost. When a popular oyster farm went out of business, for example, five or six housing units were removed, but the closure affected many more people than just their workers. Family members had jobs in nearby towns and their children went to the local schools. Sometimes a worker or family may lose housing because their rental unit is sold to new owners who want to keep the home as a weekend retreat for themselves or turn it into a short-term rental.
As rents increase, “what I have seen is more people having to move out of the area.” In neighboring Sonoma County, in 2015 a two-bedroom apartment went for about $1,800 to $2,100 per month, but there was nothing available in that price range in the Point Reyes area. One Latina testified at a Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting about the housing crisis: “You find housing but they are $3,500 or $4,000 a month and we cannot afford them.” Another spoke to say that she has lived in Point Reyes Station for nineteen years, “but I live with the stress that one month I can pay the rent, but I never know if I will make it for the next month.”
Some workers who came several decades ago for jobs on the dairy ranches eventually sought better housing opportunities or retired outside of West Marin. “Most [Latinos] who were here in the ‘80s and ‘90s have moved,” one immigrant told me. Families have dispersed to towns in Sonoma County—Rohnert Park, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa—and as far as Modesto in order to find affordable housing, but in many cases, they commute back—30 minutes, one hour, or more—to West Marin, for jobs, school, church, or simply to be with their community at events or gatherings.
In places like West Marin, displacement, which is central to process of gentrification, exists alongside what is called exclusionary displacement—when workers who are the foundation of the economy, both in the agricultural and service sectors, haven’t been able to move to West Marin because of housing costs. There are more jobs in West Marin than there are homes, and incomes are far below what one would need to afford West Marin rents. These workers commute long distances to work in West Marin, as the tourist economy expands.
Recreation- and agriculture-based tourism and a housing market dominated by second-home owners have not only changed West Marin’s economy, but also its communities. As tourists and amenity-seekers move to West Marin, so too do low-wage service workers, especially Mexicans and Mexican Americans, whose labor has been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. Worker migrations are not always residential migrations—rather, they may mean daily in- and out-migrations, because wages for service workers are far below those necessary to afford the rents and home prices in West Marin. Workers either are displaced as the tourist economy creates possibilities for higher rents or can’t move to West Marin from elsewhere to be close to their job.
Dual migration and exclusionary displacement are another manifestation of the ripple effect of wealth and people from urban core to hinterlands that gentrification causes. These migrations highlight that gentrification, while its visible effects may be local, is a regional phenomenon, produced through regional processes like housing and job-market shifts and community displacement. Gentrification in West Marin is also a product of regional relationships that have developed over decades: from land conservation and land-use regulations, to tech wealth, to the market for locally sourced and organic food that urban gentrification, West Marin is itself a largely a product of the urban core.
[i] The research area was a portion of West Marin that includes Point Reyes National Seashore, and the towns surrounding Tomales Bay— Inverness, Olema, Point Reyes Station, Marshall, and Tomales.
[ii] The Countywide Plan and the Local Coastal Program only allow road improvement projects that will enhance safety, but not increase the capacity of the roads.
[iii] Lees, L., T. Slater, and E. Wyly. 2008. Gentrification. New York: Routledge.
[iv] Coast Miwok Tribal Council. http://www.coastmiwokofmarin.org/our-history.html
[v]Haworth, E. 2021. “Honoring the Asian American Legacy in West Marin” Point Reyes Light. May 5. https://www.ptreyeslight.com/features/honoring-asian-american-legacy-west-marin/. Avery, Christy. Tomales Bay Environmental History and Historic Resource Study. Point Reyes National Seashore. San Francisco, CA: National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 2009.
[vi] Holland, Wade. Interview with author. February 4, 2015
[vii] Bolinas, just south of Point Reyes, has a community of Mexicans from Sinaloa.
[viii] Anonymous. Interview with author. June 24, 2014.
[ix] The Light on the Coast. 1986. Point Reyes Station.
[x] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015
[xii] Pavone, K. Farmista’s feast. https://farministasfeast.com.
[xiii] Hill, E. 2018. Flavors of West Marin book. Food and Farm blog.
[xiv] This rancher also described at least three other employees to me, full- and part-time. Anonymous. Interview with author. October 20, 2016.
[xv] Porrata, Carlos. Interview with author. March 24, 2016
[xvi] Quoted in Fairfax, S., L.N. Dyble, G. Tor Guthey, L. Gwin, M. Moore, and J. Sokolove. 2012. California cuisine and just food. Boston: MIT Press: 160.
[xviii] Gray, M. 2014. Labor and the locavore: The making of a comprehensive food ethic. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
[xix] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016.
[xx] An employee of the planning department described to me community response to development as “vitriolic” (Anonymous. Interview with author. October 25, 2015).
[xxi] The numbers are not in for the current cycle, 2015-2023. Interestingly, for the 2007-2014 cycle, Marin was not ranked last in the Bay Area for permits issued for “very low” and “low” income housing. In fact, it far surpassed most other Bay Area counties in those areas, but other counties came closer to meeting goals for “moderate” and “above-moderate” housing. ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) 2014. San Francisco Bay Area progress in meeting 2007-2014 Regional housing need allocation (RHNA). https://abag.ca.gov/files/RHNAProgress2007_2014_082815.pdf
[xxii] The Housing Element does not explore why this concern, though widespread, does not hold weight; the bulk of the traffic in Marin is due to commuters, who, if they were able to live closer to their jobs, would not take up so much space on the roadways.
[xxiii] Community Development Agency. 2015. Marin County Housing Element 2015-2023. www.marincounty.org/HousingElement
[xxiv] Even so, 38 percent of Marin households are categorized as “extremely low,” “very low,” or “low income.”
[xxv] The wealth in the housing market comes from outside of the community.
[xxvi] Burd-Sharps, S. and K. Lewis. 2012. A portrait of Marin: Marin County human development report 2012. American Human Development Project of the Social Science Research Council. http://www.measureofamerica.org/docs/APOM_Final-SinglePages_12.14.11.pdf
[xxvii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.
[xxviii] Mark Dowie emphasizes that “then and now there were and are exemplary ranchers who provide good housing and pay decent wages to their workers.” Email message to author. May 4, 2016.
[xxix] Dowie, Mark. Email message to author. May 4, 2016.
[xxx] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 6; Community Development Agency. 2015. Marin County Housing Element 2015-2023. www.marincounty.org/HousingElement.
[xxxi] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 10.
[xxxii] In some cases, mobile homes on a ranch are rented to directly non-ranch workers, because the lack of housing is so severe for those in the Latino community.
[xxxiii] Lease permits have a more complicated history than I go into here. Laura Watt details it in her 2017 book, The paradox of preservation: Wilderness and working landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.)
[xxxiv] Anonymous. Interview with author. June 14, 2016.
[xxxv] Relationships between individual ranches and the park vary, and many ranchers describe a good relationship with the park.
[xxxvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016; Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned.
[xxxvii] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016.
[xxxviii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.
[xxxix] In many cases, storeowners said they accept CalFresh, but on further questioning they didn’t actually know what it was or the machine was broken and they could not accept it.
[xl] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 10, 2016; Marin Food Policy Council. 2015. Equitable access to healthy and local food in Marin County: Preliminary report on policy priorities to the Board of Supervisors, October. http://ucanr.edu/sites/MarinFoodPolicyCouncil/files/223505.pdf.
[xli] Brown, S. and C. Getz. 2011. Farmworker food insecurity and the production of hunger in California. In A.H. Alkon and J. Aygeman (eds.). Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[xlii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.
[xliv] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.
[xlv] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016; Porrata, C. Interview with author. March 24, 2016.
[xlvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.
[xlvii] Porrata, C. Interview with author. March 24, 2016.
[xlviii] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.
[xlix] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 15, 2016.
[l] Anonymous. Interview with author. December 14, 2015.
[li] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.
[lii] Anonymous. Interview with author. April 13, 2016.
[liv] Anonymous. Interview with author. December 14, 2015.
[lv] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 15, 2016.
[lvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.
[lvii] She did go on to say that since many Latino work on ranches and live in on-site housing, housing for the Latino community is to some extent a separate issue.
[lviii] Holland, W. Interview with author. February 24, 2015.
[lix] Nelson, P.B., L. Nelson, and L. Trautman. 2014. Linked migration and labor market flexibility in rural amenity destinations in the United States. Journal of Rural Studies 36: 121-136.
[lx] Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned
[lxi] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.
[lxii] Gonzalez, F. 2015. Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting. November 27. https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive.
[lxiii] Reynoso, M. 2015. Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting. November 27. https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive.
[lxiv] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.
[lxv] Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned; Anonymous. Interview with author, September 25, 2015. Commuting back to where one has been displaced from for work, school, or community is not unusual in gentrifying areas (See Dirks, S. and D. Katayama. 2017. American suburb. Forum. KQED radio, February 8. https://www.kqed.org/forum/2010101858666/kqed-looks-inside-the-changing-bay-area-with-american-suburb).
Jessica Lage received her PhD in Geography from UC Berkeley. She is the author of a guidebook to Point Reyes National Seashore. She works as an independent researcher and writer.