Marin’s cities are growing fast, too

Last month, we reported that Marin’s population grew much faster in 2013 than it had historically, up 1 percent rather than the historical average of 0.2 percent. Last week, the US Census released numbers for cities and towns, and the numbers show an equally sunny trend.

Cities and town populations grew an average of 1.1 percent in 2013 led by 1.8 percent growth in Novato, 1.2 percent in Mill Valley, and 1.1 percent in Tiburon.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

This is on the heels of a very slow growth decade. Between 2000 and 2010, a number of towns shrank: Sausalito, Belvedere, San Anselmo, and Larkspur, along with unincorporated Marin. As you can see from the chart above, not one part of Marin shrank in the past 3 years, a marked change. Of those towns that did grow from 2000-2010, Mill Valley and Corte Madera grew faster in the past 3 years than they did that whole decade. So did Marin County as a whole.

Other towns reversed shrinking trends. Belvedere, Larkspur, San Anselmo, Sausalito, and unincoporated Marin all shrank between 2000 and 2010, and all grew over the past 3 years.

Novato stands apart from the data as by far the fastest-growing city in the county, and it is accelerating along with the rest of the county. Between 2000 and 2010, it grew an average of 0.9 percent per year, while this past year it more than doubled that rate, to 1.8 percent. It is known as the city with the cheapest housing, but much of that cost is offset by driving. The H+T affordability index puts the city as just as unaffordable as the rest of the county, and it’s not surprising. Novatoans have longer commutes than other Marinites, while its high rate of retail leakage means plenty of them are also driving far for errands.

We don’t yet know who these new residents are by city, but we do know that they aren’t births. Most of the new residents to the county at large moved here; were it not for them, we’d be shrinking rapidly.

We also know they aren’t occupying new housing. Over the past 3 years, Marin’s housing stock has been essentially stable, growing by just 0.25 percent.

This throws a wrench into the slow-growth argument against housing. Every city is growing faster than it did from 2000-2010, and this past year every city grew more than 0.8 percent. It’s not just Novato carrying the county.

It also means that, even with essentially nothing in the way of new housing, Marin is growing. Critics are right that Marin can’t solve the region’s housing crisis on its own, but it also can’t ignore the fast-brewing problems within its own borders. Rapid population growth without housing only tightens the screws.

While anti-development activists in other suburbs have proven to be reticent to allow second units, those in Marin have been veritable boosters of the idea. That opens up the potential for another 66,000 homes without altering the feel or character of host neighborhoods. We can’t ignore that potential, or the potential for proper infill housing, any longer.


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.

10 Responses to Marin’s cities are growing fast, too

  1. Richard Hall says:

    Isn’t this showing that people are moving to Novato as they can get bigger homes there for the same money, they choose to sacrifice commute time?

    I can speak to anecdotal stories of this. It would be interesting if data existed or surveys.

    I’m also hearing from realtors that southern Marin is seeing more families come in, where homes were previously occupied by fewer occupants of the older generation. Again hearsay, but the word on the street. That white picket fence is just etched into many when they hit their 30s. It’s hard to deprogram.

    • Right on about Novato. Basically, the prices are lower there because the commute sucks. If they could afford something larger closer to the city (or even in the city) many might choose it, but demand is so high for size + location that they’d rather go for size. Given that the added transportation cost offsets any location discount, too, they’re really not that much better off financially, either. Novato’s a good idea if you a) want that big yard, or b) don’t have a lot of money to put down on a house. Though year-to-year costs are just as high, the upfront isn’t as bad as it would be further south.

      Southern Marin, meanwhile, is the only place where rents for 3+ bedroom apartments is rising faster than the rents for studios and 1 bedroom. It’d be interesting to see where people are moving to from S. Marin, but that data won’t be out for quite a while.

      Last year’s data found that elementary-aged kids and people 45+ were the fastest growing demographics in Southern Marin, and that seems to bear out in housing demand: families are coming back, but people are getting older even faster.

  2. Stephen Nestel says:

    Dave, these rates are statistically insignificant. You are selecting a very small dataset. It is accurate but a distortion to say. “the rate of growth more than doubled from ..09 to 1.8%” since the total rate is anemic at best.

    Remember, ABAG is projecting 16% growth with their “magical, mystical growth rate” concocted by consultant Steven Levy (who has conveniently been replaced by ABAG) in direct opposition to any actual historical population data projections ever recorded. Before we can agree on sound public policy, we need to agree on sound data.

    • Well, you’re knocking down the US Census without really explaining why, and you’re saying a 1.8% annual population growth rate isn’t significant. Before we can agree on sound data, we need to agree on what would be statistical significance.

      16% growth, by the way, is a 0.5% annual increase, rather slower than what we’ve see recently.

      • Stephen Nestel says:

        I am not dissing the Census at all. I am pointing out that your conclusion on the “rapid growth” of Marin is based on a logical fallacy. If a snail average speed is 1 cm per hour and increases speed to 2 cm per hour, it’s speed could be said to “double”

        If a cheetah’s average speed increases from 100 km/hour (62 mph) to 120 km/hour (75 mph) you could say it increased it’s speed a paltry 20% to capture it’s prey.

        Growth has been insignificant in Marin for decades. a tiny uptick is not a trend nor does it tell you anything useful for public policy. It may just be telling us that people are escaping San Francisco at a higher rate. The key factors of the local economy are in decline.

        “Growth for growth’s sake is the philosophy of the cancer cell” -Edmund Abbey

        • Ah. Well, for what it’s worth, 1% is actually quite a rapid clip for population growth on an annualized basis. Put another way: Marin’s annual growth rate is about 1 Ross per year, and over the past 3 years Marin’s added about 2.5 Rosses, or half a Larkspur.

  3. Franz Listen says:

    Three thoughts…

    1) It’s possible that the recent acceleration in population growth is a quirk due to the wringing out of surplus housing inventories that were built up during the unusual event of the great recession. Vacant apartments, condos and rental homes might all be filling up and a lot hard to find now than in 2011, as demand returns. This suggests that if housing supply isn’t expanded, population growth in Marin may slow again.

    2) Still, this new data does challenge one of the weaker arguments of the no-growth crowd; namely that there is no business sense in developing new housing. I’ve often heard anecdotes like, “there is an apartment available at such and such place and therefore there is no need to plan for or to allow new housing”. This line of reasoning – that anti-development activists understand the market better than market actors themselves – never really made any sense and is becoming more detached from reality as the market tightens.

    3) Having said this, the mere fact of stronger demand to live here doesn’t determine what course of action we should take when it comes to growth and development policies. However, it does suggest that, whether we like it or not, we are again going to be forced to choose some combination of:

    A) punishingly high prices that squeeze middle class people out of the Marin County market
    B) additional low density sprawl housing that comes with a loss of open space,
    C) infill housing and added densification in places,
    D) subsidized housing that allows a lucky sliver of the poor to live among the very affluent.

    The most zealous anti-development folks choose “A” alone. O’Toole from the CATO Institute promotes “B”. Most true libertarians would choose “B” and “C”. Developers favor “B”, “C” and “D”. The progressive smart growthers and housing advocates at CALM favor “C” and “D”. Some lefty development skeptics seem only interested in “D”. Some moderate anti-development folks choose mostly “A” with a little side of “C” in the form of small infill and second units. I happen to mainly favor “C” because I think it can be done it a way that preserves and even enhances the appeal of Marin. I realize that a small side of “A” may need to come along with my preferred approach, since I’m not in favor of skyscraper towers and know that there are a limited number of quality infill opportunity sites.

    • Stephen Nestel says:

      Franz, while I like the term “no growth crowd” better than other insults, it really isn’t an accurate depiction of me or anyone I know in the Citizen Marin crowd, we are for thoughtful growth, reasonable densities based on a realistic assessment of the facts.

      The absence of construction IS a big factor in the scarcity of real estate and the high prices but it is precisely because of the devastatingly high costs of government fees and taxes. Marin has the dubious distinction of some of the highest property taxes in the entire state. The intrusion of unregulated growth of especially non profit housing in Marin will drive the costs of home ownership through the roof. Our current infrastructure will have to be rebuilt by the existing taxpayers forcing middle income people out of their homes. The “problem” of housing has been greatly exaggerated to allow developers to sell their schemes of highly profitable “big box” apartments built with government subsidies. While you see Marin as a land of affluent, I see hard working middle class people barely getting by, trying to survive among greater and greater tax burdens, force to shoulder the burden for the benefit of the wealthy developers.

      • Franz Listen says:


        The creation of homes, stores or offices in a legitimate commercial activity. It is not a “scheme” on its face. It’s also hardly unregulated. Moreover, the impact of the development on the bottom line of a city in not necessarily negative and its too simplistic to assume this. Development can be a net positive depending on the particulars, adding more in revenue than it does city expenses.

        I agree that subsidized, tax-exempt housing can be a burden, which is why I do not advocate for it. Anti-development activists, however, go far beyond criticizing subsidized housing as burdensome. They even have the chutzpah (yes, some of the same people) to criticize market rate housing as not doing enough for the poor. They speak with forked tongues.

        I haven’t seen as much open-mindedness or advocacy for “thoughtful growth” from the anti crowd as you suggest. I have seen absolutism, though. I have personally witnessed people at a podium in Larkspur saying “not one new unit !!!!”. Do they mean 2nd units too? Wasn’t Randy Warren’s slogan that Marin was “full” or “closed for business” or something like that ?

  4. stephen nestel says:

    Of course the creation of homes, stores and offices is a legitimate commercial activity when created by private forces of supply and demand. It is a scheme, when it is concocted by government planners in concert with crony developers, using government money to create a subsidized,”Disneylandia” development that the “Smart growth set” find so alluring. Unfortunately, people prefer to live in suburban environments and modern retail demand different types of commercial space. Opps.

    If you want to see what central planning brings you, visit the old Soviet bloc countries or even the modern “Ghost Cities” of China. They are creepy and lifeless.

    The great cities of the world are created in the prosperous areas of the world where supply and demand flow freely. San Francisco, London, Paris (the good parts) were created WITHOUT the intrusion of the nanny state.

    We can solve the “problems” of housing of Marin, cheaply but since it does not benefit giant developers and Wall Street, it will never happen. I am told it costs $43,000 in government fees just to permit a legal “mother in law” apartment. Eliminate the fees and hundreds of new apartments will come on the market AND the owners will pay MORE TAXES instead of giving away millions in tax subsidies.

    The issue of water and infrastructure cannot be ignored. It doesn’t matter what kind of development is coming in. The Urbanize Marin crowd is ignoring the obvious limits. That is why some are calling for a total moratorium until practical solutions are found. This is just common sense.

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