The need for workforce housing in Marin County is demonstrable, pressing and clear. While there are many reasons why workforce housing is needed, the impact on the economic future of Marin is one of the most compelling.
While others try to sort out traffic numbers and percentages of commuters coming from outside of Marin, Marin employers need no such clarification of where their workforce resides today, and perhaps more importantly, without more housing, where that workforce will reside tomorrow.
In today’s talent-driven employment market, employers are challenged daily to fill open positions. With an unemployment rate of 2 percent, ALL positions in Marin County are hard to fill. No doubt you have seen “Help Wanted” signs throughout the county. While you may not see signs for higher-level positions hanging in storefront windows, please know that we hear daily about the ongoing effort and expense to recruit and retain the needed workforce.
Not being able to house our workforce impacts all of us in Marin in several ways. The inability to fill positions reduces productivity, innovation, profit and more importantly, quality of life. The inability to fill key positions causes organizations to grow where talent is readily available or at its worst, relocate to a location with a good talent supply.
Another impact that affects employers is the need to pay increasingly higher wages to retain and attract talent, especially those that can’t afford to live in Marin County and can find work closer to home.
Kelley Hartman, senior vice president of Nelson Staffing, says, “The shortage of housing in Marin only exacerbates the talent shortage. The median list price per square foot for housing in Marin County is $656 (according to Zillow), which is higher than the San Francisco Metro average of $496. Coupled with the extremely low unemployment rate, high housing costs mean that employees working in Marin
County can — and do — demand higher wages due to this talent shortage.”
The cost of commuting often eats up whatever incentive increased wages provide. Hartman says, “Nelson recruiters have had to get much more resourceful in looking for candidates for Marin County positions. Reaching out to candidates in Sonoma and Alameda Counties with a more dense employment base has been a regular practice. However, more often than in the past, candidates tell us that the traffic and excellent employment opportunities in their own backyard do not offset salaries which are only marginally higher than what they could earn locally.”
The constant pressure to increase wages to fill positions takes its toll on employers’ bottom line as wages have to be adjusted for all employees as new employees’ wages are raised. That payroll increase leads to companies having to raise prices or fees to keep up with rising labor costs. And consumers feel it in their wallets as they pay more for products and services.
The lack of workforce housing, and failure to even begin to create housing in a reasonable ratio to jobs being created, has led Marin County to be hard hit. Focusing on the traffic obscures the bigger problem of the looming economic impact that the failure to house our workforce is driving. Without more workforce housing, we will be subject to a shrinking middle class a struggling economy, loss of tax
revenue, and less options for goods and services while paying more and more for what we need.
And let’s end with what we seek in workforce housing. Marin’s housing shortage is driven by the “missing middle.” The missing middle is both a range of housing that is in between single-family homes and high-rise apartment buildings, as well as the workforce who needs housing that is attainable on their salaries. Missing middle housing includes in-between housing like rowhouses, duplexes, accessory
dwelling units and apartment courts. The price point of this housing is what we need in Marin County where two-income working couples make too much to qualify for affordable housing but often too little to buy entry-level single-family homes.
Marin County employers are there to support the residents of Marin County. Now, it is time to work together to house the people who make our county a vibrant, safe, wonderful place to live. All of us should want the hospitals, schools, public safety, commerce and other essential organizations to thrive and be staffed by the best talent they can find. By creating more workforce housing, we all will benefit.
Joanne Webster is CEO of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce; Cynthia Murray is CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council; and Steve Saxe is co-chair of the Marin Environmental Housing Collaborative.