Zoning Out the Poor: The Marin County Edition

One of the largely unnoticed but critical causes of poverty in urban areas is the use of zoning codes in surrounding towns and suburbs to essentially make it impossible for low-income people to live outside of urban areas (e.g., preventing the construction of apartment buildings or higher density unattached houses which low income people could afford). These policies result in urban areas disproportionately shouldering the burden of poverty. In other words, affluent areas ‘zone out’ the poor. And these policies affect everything, including perceived educational performance: a school district with lots of poor children will almost inevitably perform worse in an absolute sense, making it that much harder to retain middle class and upper income families. These policies are not an ‘accident’: ‘zoning out’ is an intentional policy of preventing lower-income people from moving in.

Lest you think I’m being too cynical, consider the recent clash between Lucasfilms and Marin County (Marin County is the 24th richest out of 3,141 counties with an average income of over $84,000). Lucasfilms had a large parcel land on which it wanted to build studios in Marin county, but a local homeowner group opposed the plan. Out of frustration, Lucasfilms gave up on the idea, and, instead, decided to give the land to a group that builds low-income housing (though this isn’t final yet).

Here are some of the responses (boldface mine):

San Anselmo contractor Bill Lehrke called the situation “a very sad and dark day for Marin” since the project represented a “brilliant use of the land” that would provide hundreds of jobs and create a low carbon footprint. “This is the worst example of NIMBYism I have ever witnessed. Instead of this wonderful and thoughtfully designed project, let’s develop this space into a few hundred low-income homes,” Lehrke said. “And think of the new shopping center that could be built on the St. Vincent property nearby, with big box stores to service their needs.”

Charles Ballinger, a former chairman of the Strawberry Design review Board, called the saga “one of the most significant Marin planning stories in a long time.” He added: “Lucas Valley Estates will get what they deserve if low-income housing is built in their backyards. … Although I feel this is a great loss for the county of Marin, I can understand why Lucasfilm said “enough is enough.”

Of course, no one would complain about a few hundred (or dozen) high-income homes. And I love the idea of poor people as punishment. There is, of course, no mention of where low-income people are supposed to live–except, it would seem, not in Marin County, if at all possible.

This is a reason why some people can’t have nice things.

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2 Responses to Zoning Out the Poor: The Marin County Edition

  1. joemac53 says:

    Here on Cape Cod, an unnamed town issued 700 building permits over a 5 year period and their school population went down. Second houses drive up prices and drive young people away. I feel very lucky that my two oldest, well-educated and employed daughters live in their hometown. Of course I have no money left, but I love having them around. (FAFSA wants me to take out a mortgage to get my youngest through college. I’m resisting)

  2. Pingback: When People Buy a House, They’re Buying a Student Body | Mike the Mad Biologist

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