Some Bolinas residents live luxuriously in large homes overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Others reside in unconventional dwellings, such as a sauna without a bathroom, a caravan parked in a yard or a yurt with the toilet and shower located nearby on the property.
Bolinas locals say getting creative is the only way many of them can afford to stay in their West Marin coastal community. Half of the town’s housing stock now serves as short-term rentals or second homes for out-of-towners, Evan Wilhelm, managing director of the Bolinas Community Land Trust, said.
Airbnb and other websites offering an easy way to list short-term rentals contribute to the imbalance in the use of housing stock, which has been devastating to the full-time, working-class population in Bolinas. Almost 50 homes have been removed from the long-term rental market. Second homes remaining vacant most of the year may be more of an issue, with the number estimated to be a few hundred.
The small, unincorporated town of Bolinas has a population of almost 1,500 people and 887 housing units, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. With many homes sitting empty most of the year, finding a reasonably priced, year-round rental is next to impossible. The resulting exodus of essential workers has had a noticeable impact on Bolinas.
“Over the last 10 years, our school enrollment has plummeted, with many families having to leave due to housing instability,” Wilhelm said. “When I attended school in Bolinas, every teacher lived locally. Now, the majority commute to their teaching jobs and are among the many people looking for secure and affordable housing within Bolinas and West Marin. Our fire department struggles to find volunteers and stable staffing due to housing.”
Water regulations compound the housing crisis. In 1971, a moratorium on new water connections was established by the Bolinas Community Public Utility District. Paul Kayfetz, a member of the BCPUD board of directors from 1971 to 2000, says in the two years prior to the start of the moratorium, Bolinas added about 100 new water meters. Then came the water shortage.
“The Arroyo Hondo Creek, the town’s only water source at the time, seasonally ran down to a subsurface trickle,” Kayfetz said. “Over a period of years, two small reservoirs were dug and that exhausted the expansion of the water supply that was available. Still, we see it is not enough to supply the town in a drought situation.”
Although challenged by lawsuits filed in state and federal courts, the water-hookup moratorium remains in effect today, more than 51 years later. The result: only 587 water meters serve all of Bolinas.
In Feb. 2021, the drought triggered the BCPUD to mandate a cap on the town’s water usage. If residents collectively exceeded the max, each water meter would be limited to 125 gallons of water per day. Fortunately, heavy rainfall filled the reservoirs late last year and the BCPUD suspended the regulation in November.
The BCPUD also determines the maximum amount of water that can be used at a property when a Bolinas resident wants to remodel or expand their home. Ditto for new construction. Of course, the property owner must already possess a water meter. The average water usage in Bolinas is about 25 gallons daily per person, far below California’s average of 91 gallons daily per person.
All these factors make it difficult to develop the desperately needed affordable housing in town, although the Bolinas Community Land Trust is working to meet the needs of full-time, low-income residents and keep Bolinas thriving. The nonprofit agency currently operates five properties with 23 units, which serve 38 tenants.
The land trust has four other properties that are in various stages of early development. The pipeline includes an affordable housing development with eight apartments at 31 Wharf Road in downtown Bolinas. The two empty lots on Wharf Road, acquired from an anonymous donor, came with the coveted water connection. Wilhelm says this project is particularly noteworthy as it is the only new multifamily affordable housing developments approved in unincorporated Marin during the last seven years.
Still, demand far exceeds the supply, even with the new developments on deck. The land trust has 200 people on its wait list for housing. In general, their existing units see little turnover, Wilhelm says.
The Marin County Board of Supervisors enacted an ordinance in 2018 to regulate short-term rentals in unincorporated Marin. A property owner must obtain a business license and pay a 10% transient occupancy tax to rent their residence for 30 days or less. The tax proceeds go into the County’s general fund.
Also in 2018, West Marin voters passed a measure to establish the West Marin Transient Occupancy Tax. An additional tax, currently at 4%, provides increased funding for local fire departments and grants for long-term community housing.
The County keeps a close eye on short-term rentals. There are 48 properties in Bolinas with short-term rental business licenses, according to Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni.
“The County offered an amnesty program for owners who weren’t following the regulations for their short-term rentals,” Rodoni said. “Then we went after people.”
Katie Weber, a longtime Bolinas resident who owns La Sirena, a downtown boutique, enjoys a benefit from the short-term rental business—a side job managing an Airbnb. Her friend recently stood with other protestors in Bolinas holding signs that read “Don’t Pimp Our Town.” Weber points out that second homes are a bigger problem, as there are far more vacant homes in Bolinas than Airbnbs.
Second homes are difficult to regulate because of privacy rights. Rodoni says some other communities are looking at how to tax vacant housing, although he’s not sure it will help the housing crisis in Bolinas.
”How do you develop permanent housing with that revenue?” Rodoni said, referencing the various factors restricting new development in Bolinas.
The “pimping” of Bolinas has caused frustration and anxiety for resident Estella Mora, 18, and her twin sister. The siblings are lifelong Bolinas residents. The owner of their family’s rental home is moving back in, and the sisters don’t want to leave their hometown. Despite months of hunting, they haven’t been able to find a new place to live.
“It’s hard to see all these newcomers,” Mora said. “They get housing and we don’t. Then a lot of them just leave their places empty.”