By Tom Gogola
On a bluff in Bolinas there’s a single mother who lives with her young daughter in an apartment with a billion-dollar ocean view. The mom is able to pay the rent because the homeowner has an affinity for single mothers, and for helping the town save itself from the worst effects of the online, short-term vacation-rental economy.
Could this ethic offer a model for reforming the short-term rental market in Bolinas and beyond?
While there are numerous for-profit competitors to the dominant players—VRBO and Airbnb—there are no sites that aim to corral a locality’s power to manage demand by creating a local platform administered locally and with buy-in from the residents and homeowners themselves. That would require a devotion to “ethical real estate” that may strike some as inherently oxymoronic, but there is an opportunity, perhaps, for Bolinas to build a better mousetrap to preserve the character of the town, a destination for artists and writers and musicians and freaks of all persuasions for decades.
Bolinas put itself on the map by taking itself off the map through the removal of street signs and, yes, there are residents whose suggested reform for short-term vacationers is a bristling, “Get out.” It’s a town where the enjoyment of beauty and living a life of communal anonymity is now met with an anonymity that’s outside the control of long-term residents: Who did the absentee neighbor with the otherwise-vacant house rent to this weekend? The obnoxious bachelor party with midnight vomiters retching under a full moon? The ayahuasca vision-seekers driving Benzes from San Francisco and shrieking about the Jesus gargoyle on a Sunday afternoon?
Bolinas is not unlike towns all over the North Bay as it has dealt with the advent of the short-term online rental platform and its deleterious impact on local housing stocks and the character of the community. Healdsburg is putting forward a measure in November that would add a local Transient Occupation Tax (TOT) to a renter’s fee. Municipalities that have tried to pass restrictive short-term-rental laws, or pushed to ban the online platforms altogether, have faced legal opposition and challenges and blowback from residents. That’s been the case in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Laguna Beach and elsewhere. Sausalito banned short-term rentals, but there are numerous listings on Airbnb despite that. Nearby Tiburon banned short-term rentals last year, but VRBO’s got a listing up there right now.
Lawmakers have taken note of the growing downsides to an under-regulated online-rental industry. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein asked the Federal Trade Commission in July to do a deep-dive on the implications of the industry; at the state level, state Sen. Mike McGuire offered a bill last year designed, among other things, to put local decisions about short-term rentals squarely in the domain of the localities themselves.
“I think that any time a local jurisdiction can take control of their housing stock, it’s a win-win for homeowners and residents of a community,” he says. “Local control is always the best option,” McGuire adds as he notes his “concern about the proliferation of short-term rentals in small coastal communities and the way their culture has changed because of the number of homes that have become second-home vacation homes. Small coastal communities have been overrun by vacation rentals.”
There’s an oceanfront home in Bolinas that’s for rent for $1,200 a night and it’s tricked out like a five-star hotel. Meanwhile, stories of how long-term tenants and residents are being squeezed out by short-term rental money are, well, a dime a dozen. On any given weekend, visitors are greeted with signs around Bolinas that single out Airbnb for gutting the town of housing that might otherwise be affordable and available to residents.
But there is hope that some of the spirit that originally inspired the creation of Bolinas as an idea and not just a town is still lingering around. A fairly common story that’s not unique to Bolinas is the plight of the longtime and aging homeowner with a mortgage, maybe some out-of-pocket health expenses that are crippling them, and a long-term tenant who is paying a humane amount of rent and has been for years. According to residents I spoke to, there already are homes in Bolinas where a tenant voluntarily exits the premises once in awhile so the owner can cash in with Airbnb and pay some hideously large bill. It’s inconvenient, but it beats getting evicted. Could that sort of ad hoc approach to preserving housing be blown out on a community-wide scale?
Bolinas may be uniquely poised to create its own path forward, and one resident, a veteran community leader who asked to remain anonymous because of his high profile in town, says the time is ripe for such an idea. He sees no value in trying to ban Airbnb or in publicly shaming people who rent their homes to vacationers.
“We need to come up with something new, something else,” he says. He believes in an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to the short-term rental dilemma that is at once creative and noncoercive, and that doesn’t emphasize banning, shaming or otherwise alienating homeowners who participate in the short-term rental economy. He raises a core issue: How do you manage and curate demand in a way that would serve to preserve and enhance the community-driven spirit of the place?
There is a countywide push, driven by the Marin County Board of Supervisors and the Community Development Agency, to try and solve the affordable-housing problem in Marin, where rents average $2,500 a month and the median price of a home has eclipsed $1 million. In February, the county pledged that it was “working with local landlords to provide incentives to keep apartments affordable, promoting development of second units, acquire existing rental housing for preservation of and conversion to affordable homes, and encourage multifamily housing.” But the county also relies on TOT income from West Marin to pay for services in the unincorporated parts of the county, where much of the short-term-rental action takes place.
For-profit platforms charge up to 15 percent as a service fee for using the site, money that goes to a company with no interest in developing affordable housing in Bolinas, or anywhere else for that matter. And yet the Bolinas Community Land Trust is an entity with a commitment to preserving and developing affordable housing in the town, and its efforts to some extent mirror the county’s February push on affordable housing. The organization says it is always interested in new ideas to solve a vexing long-term problem. McGuire says he’d be open to exploring a pilot program at the state level.
“If there is a nonprofit that can step in and keep investments local while also preserving housing stock, I would be interested in exploring this issue further, absolutely,” he says.