Changing Demographics Calls for Changing Housing

Discussions of Marin’s development often lack data but are long on anecdote and impressions, giving misguided assertions about Marin’s population or housing undue cachet.

But if Marin wants to genuinely plan for the future, it must face the facts of its people and its housing market: there is strong demand for larger apartments in Southern Marin and smaller apartments elsewhere; there are more kids and more people living alone; and that the graying population will need to be able to downsize.

Graying Needs

Between the 2000 and the 2010 Census, Marin’s population grew by about 2 percent and its median age increased three years, from 41.3 years old to 44.5. While the proportion of school-aged children increased by about 1 point, the proportion of middle-aged people plummeted by 10 points; those aged 55 and up increased by a similar amount. So, while we got older, our families grew a bit.

And though our average household got a bit larger, the number of people living alone, especially seniors has already started to increase faster than the population as a whole, while the proportion of families has actually gone down.

Click to enlarge.

The shift is divergent between Southern Marin and the rest of the county. While the median age of Southern Marin has kept pace with the rest of the county, it’s been attracting families. The number of people living alone actually declined by 2.5 percent in Southern Marin while it jumped 9.4 percent everywhere else. The population of elementary-aged kids positively boomed, growing an astounding 17.3 percent while the rest of the county’s population shrank by 1.1 percent.

Yet even here, the continued shift to older individuals means its familial boom can’t continue without seniors leaving the region. Southern Marin is where the families are going, it’s true, but it’s aging just as quickly. Unless those seniors start to leave or new family housing is built in Southern Marin, housing costs are going to continue to climb into the stratosphere.

As this shift away from families and towards empty-nesters goes on, people will increasingly use family-sized homes for couples and singles. Already we have 1.17 bedrooms per person compared to 0.95 for the state and 1.15 for the country at large.  If we want to keep our homes turning over while keeping our long-term residents in town, we need to allow space for people to downsize into. Senior housing, small single-family homes and the like would allow people to transition without leaving out of the county. Building such homes near transit would give seniors flexibility once it’s no longer feasible to drive, incidentally a goal of AARP.

Squeezing the Market

Rents reflect the shifting demands in Marin’s largely stagnant market. The average rent for a three bedroom apartment has skyrocketed in Southern Marin, moving up 28 percent to $3,232 in just a year, from the first quarter of 2011 and now.  Studio rents there have stayed fairly steady, increasing only 4 percent in the same time period. In Central Marin, however, studios and two-bedroom apartments have dominated the market’s rise, with average rent increasing by 14 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

The housing supply has left behind the studio apartment. Marin has been upsizing, replacing small homes for large ones: the number of no- or one-bedroom homes has dropped 19 percent while larger homes have increased 11.9 percent. It means there will quickly be a shortage of studio and one-bedroom apartments, and there’s no relief on its way.

Zoning codes currently in force actually punish developers for building small units. Density limits on a per-unit basis encourage developers to build the largest units that can be rented rather than the most rentable mix of units. Other limits, such as maximum floor area or parking minimums, further strains a developer’s capability to build small. ABAG density guidelines only make the problem worse by politicizing density over height, inspiring impassioned speeches against zoning 31 units per acre.

In Southern Marin, where high rents should bring more development, community backlash against any and all development has had a major chilling effect. Who would buy developable land when they see the nightmare faced by the Blithedale Terrace? Those high rents for three bedroom apartments are the result of a major housing shortage. Shockingly, they’re actually approaching the cost of studio apartments on a square-foot basis, something unheard of except in extremely constrained and warped markets.

Bottom Lines

If Marin wants to continue to be a place for families and its seniors, it must move away from density limits and allow the market to adjust. San Rafael is already doing this with the Downtown Station Area Plan, which maintains height limits but abolishes density limits. Southern Marin could get a boost from the Mill Valley General Plan update if it’s paired with permitting process reform.

Marin can’t be held in stasis; its housing supply is built for an increasingly small demographic – the home-owning family – leaving the childless, seniors, and renting families to compete with extraordinarily high prices. If Marin tries to steer clear of infill development it will only shut out all but the wealthiest of new residents and those lucky enough to get a spot in affordable housing. We’ll be forced to build nonprofit housing, burdening municipal and county budgets with people who need services but whose homes are exempt from property and parcel taxes. Marin is changing, and our governments and residents need to let our housing supply do the same.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

7 Responses to Changing Demographics Calls for Changing Housing

  1. Pingback: A Changing Marin County Is Still Building Yesterday’s Housing |

  2. dw shelf says:

    Increased density is good, particularly for seniors.

    Community fear of density generally focuses on two areas: increased crime, and decreased parking. The crime concern is acute when discussing _rental_ density. Check out where demand for police attention is high, and you’ll find high density rental housing. No one wants that in their community, and density advocates need to figure out how to address the issue if they expect to convince anyone.

    Political correctness is the enemy here. We want functional, high density communities, but the tools available to keep out the criminally inclined are limited by well intentioned civil libertarians. Senior communities are one solution which passes the PC filter, but functional communities include more than just seniors.

    The unfortunate net common result is a community aggressively blocking higher density development.

    Lastly, and a minor point: any senior who has lost feasibility with respect to driving, with a very high probability, has also lost feasibility WRT using public transit. The zone of interest is before that. The zone where the senior can drive, but is looking to reduce driving, because driving has become stressful. Getting seniors out of cars before the turn 90 is generally a good thing, and having a transit option surely makes that easier.

  3. Alice Hale says:

    Demand for police attention is high where there are a lot of people. If you have denser housing, you have more people. If there is one police call for every 1000 people, that will be spread out and less visible in a low-density community, but there will be just as many crimes per capita.
    Measuring criminality per acre instead of per capita leads to the mythology of urban areas having more crime than suburban or rural areas.

  4. DB says:

    Constant increasing of population density is crucial, but only if we are organizing toward a specific intention. I know this blog doesn’t focus on matters like achieving higher energy densities like fusion or matter/antimatter, but without this embedded intention to expand humanities’ domain outside of Earth (transfinite), the entire purpose of increased density (and thus the purpose of humanity) is missing.

  5. Pingback: The kids want Marin but not the car « Vibrant Bay Area

  6. Pingback: The kids want Marin but not the car | The Greater Marin

  7. Pingback: Marin is growing, and not slowly | The Greater Marin

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