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Shelter: A Perspective

“Human beings are the only species on the planet who have inflicted on their own species the need to buy, rent, or beg for their natural niches, their own living space. Every other species has come by that necessity naturally.”

Somewhere after air, water, food, and energy comes shelter as an inalienable right — right? Wrong! Today's homeowner is more of an exception to the right of independent living on one's own land and in one's own home.

Nothing terribly new here, except in the degree of homelessness and hopelessness. The enemy is not us, but a system that is sometimes perniciously present in our lives, and doesn't always have our best interest in mind. We call it civilization.

What is especially disturbing is that here in Mendocino County, land of rural freedom (old and new settlers), there is an active force aiming to curtail the freedom of home ownership, and eliminating affordable rental housing. The Class K rules are in the process of being revised by the Supervisors. By the way, affordable is a tricky term that should be tied to the concrete reality of our economic per capita income, not whatever the market will bear, or the amount to cover exorbitant mortgage payment with the rent.

The long tradition or myth of American self-sufficiency, independence, and freedom was the primary goal for the first European settlers of this county. The necessity of life, or “Root hog or die", was a living model for the first homesteaders. Had a building inspector back then visited themselves upon one of those original homesteads, informing the residents that they were to vacate or pay up, there would have been unpleasant consequences for those inspectors. Homeland security is a mutable concept.

The goal and tradition of self-sufficiency, independence, and freedom from excessive governmental intervention, although now lost to native peoples who never had to worry about big government anyway, were part of the values system of the early settlers in this valley. Some of the families of those early settlers still live here in the valley today. Old-timers nor new timers of limited financial means, are not likely to embrace the arms of the bureaucratic octopus which seek to control their land on which they lived for generations and have become stewards. In fact, it is nearly universal that any individual desires the freedom of a home without undue bureaucratic harassment.

Skipping some chunks of history, we come to the new settlers of Mendocino County in the 60s and the 70s. They came, like their predecessors, with the desire for a better life and intentional immersion in country living. Yes, countercultural attitude was a large part of this particular immigration; many wanted to change the culture of war, capitalism, and a lethal dependence on nuclear power hear.

I have written about the code wars and homesteading many years previously in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. If you are a newcomer to the issue of shelter here in Mendocino County a brief review of my family’s history of getting landed might serve as an example of the process.

Like many other young people on the lookout for a better life, we were refugees from an uncontrolled growth in the metropolis of San Diego. We tended to be disenfranchised from the mainstream politics, Cardinal Spellman administering holy water to the bombs of the B-52, three years in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, being stationed near Washington DC when Martin Luther King was assassinated, etc. and the unquestioning of authority that was and is prevalent in our society. But also, we were ordinary people who wanted our kids to have a chance to live in a beautiful natural environment and experience the freedom from the restrictions of urban lifestyle.

We landed in Anderson Valley in 1978, on 20 raw, logged-over acres with two kids, 1 and 3 years old, with some fortunate cash from sale price of our escalating priced fixer-upper in Encinitas, California. We have never regretted that decision to make this place our home for one day in our 40 years here. Like seeds waiting for the right moment, we rooted in the natural environment and community of Anderson Valley and the greater Mendocino County.

All this adaptation was not easy, of course, but between family solidarity and the gradual acceptance, we felt at home here.

We did not have resources for purchasing labor, many building materials, or pricey engineering and architectural services. In fact, we could afford very few services at all, and after an unpleasant encounter with a building inspector new to the job, we decided it was our responsibility and desire to build our own home and homestead including animals, gardens, and orchards without the benefit of building inspectors.

We came here along with a significant number of other people many of whom were lucky enough to get landed. Once here we discovered that we were on the cutting edge of the exploitation of natural resources, the forest and fisheries were in bad shape as well as the watershed. We also realized we had an opportunity for making a positive or negative impact on this place.

There were many challenges, such as chief building inspector Donald Uhr, who threatened to bulldoze all those hippy shacks in all those hills. He soon was gone though, and not long after Class K building code was born because the new settlers were not unmotivated, nor unprepared, and they had a commitment to this place. We had been red tagged and our home was under threat.

Anon Forrest, a leader of the Class K code organization, and the community of new settlers helped many young families with their protracted struggle with the County departments. We came together finally, the county government and its new residents to produce a great breakthrough compromise, Class K building code.

The code allowed people to build their own ‘legal’ homes, at their own pace, design their own living space, use recycled materials and used or locally milled lumber for their building purposes. There was also a provision for composting privies although this issue was never completely resolved. It would be against common sense to ignore fire safety, electrical safety, plumbing safety, structural safety and environmental safety. The county departments could be helpful in these areas.

This new code was generally conceived as a countywide win-win event. It became clear to most of us that employees of the various relevant county departments were not out to get us, but we nevertheless were always wary of a potential systematic problem. This new code was commensurate with the historic building practices of the ranchers and farmers in Mendocino County.

The times were a changing, as they always do. Property values increased exponentially, the cannabis industry from its humble inception was quickly morphing into an incredibly lucrative green rush revolution. The income potential from a home-grown product created a dominant industry with overall, very lenient enforcement from the county departments. This leniency was largely a result largely of the inability of any agency to enforce code or marijuana laws in a rural county the size of Pennsylvania.

Ironically in 1937 an aberrant law making the rope, dope, and oil from the seeds of the cannabis illegal had some intended consequences of targeting race--black and Hispanic culture, and protecting the special corporate interest from the competition of the fiber and oil of this plant, the THC at that point was a side issue. But it never occurred to these lawmakers that this law would create the world’s largest back yard drug industry.

The subsequent history that played out here in our hills, valleys, and labyrinthine ways of Mendocino County was parallel to corporate greed and growth, but the important point is, this time it was individual participants, no CEO’s, who would benefit sometimes as the scale became industrial, at the cost to the environment and the social fabric of the neighborhood.

After cannabis and coinciding with it, came the wine industry, in a big way. The small established family wineries were often overwhelmed with the Napa model, and of course all of these vineyards, and wineries and tasting rooms needed a big labor force, preferably affordable! Much of this labor came from a big country, Mexico, where people loved their home and culture but these American natives were no longer able to handle the economic downturn of global marketing and programs such as NAFTA courtesy of Bill Clinton and others. The vineyards, the wineries, and the tasting rooms provided lots of new jobs, but in most cases not the housing and many other needed social services for these new immigrant workers and their families. The economy continued to evolve with the rich getting ridiculously rich, and the poor desperately poorer most everywhere in these United States. The financial clout of the would-be property owner became overwhelmed with the upscale — and if you are downscale it is really tough!

There are lots of people in our community regardless of wealth who see affordable housing as essential to a healthy community. The Anderson Valley Housing Association is just one good example.

The nuts and bolts of this issue are, can people of limited means still rent or buy affordable homes and land in our community? There are guestimates of around $40,000 additional cost or much more for the new proposed rules for Class K.

Is a $10-$15,000 interior sprinkler system even desirable? This is largely a scam that will make some people wealthier and a lot of people less wealthy. A sprinkler system in the current fires and those in the recent past of our county, would be largely useless for as we know the most destructive fires came from without. And we have all heard of the results of the sprinkler system malfunctioning in the house and the disastrous consequences. And a contractor is required to install the system. A sprinkler system could be a mandate from state, but do we have to follow it any more than we followed the mandate from the federal government on cannabis.

In the new proposed Class K rules, a perimeter foundation would be required but is not necessary. The rationale for this requirement is seismic considerations which should concentrate on areas of the densest human population. For low density, less tall building areas there are alternative solutions.

Limiting the availability of Class K to 2000 square feet of habitable space seems reasonable. Many big bucks order their architects to use Class K to save lots of money on their MC mansions, this was not the original intention of the Class K code.

It seems counterintuitive to now limit class K to a parcel size of 5 acres or more when we have a dire need of housing everywhere in the county.

This brings up a philosophic point: can the government protect us from nature and ourselves, catastrophic events such as the inevitable fires, hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, etc. to the point of making us homeless before the fact?!  I have rarely heard of owner built home failure, and I know of many local class K homes that are both cutting edge in energy efficiency, affordability, and very aesthetic. It also happens that the owner builder is in prime position to maintain the property that they designed and built. There is a legend of large worldwide and US government projects gone awry seismically and otherwise, poorly designed buildings and freeways, inefficient hurricane protocol and most important, the very design and planning of our modern urban environment does not meet the standard criteria a sustainability. Do we want to go there with our code?

Inspectors are not necessarily in sympathy with repression of affordable housing but their bread is buttered through these departments. I have known many helpful and informed planners, building inspectors, health department people and supervisors. Nevertheless, the new code rule will bring in more unneeded inspectors and obstacles at a time in our history where we desperately need more affordable housing.

The issue of control is always a sensitive one and the control by our county government is no exception. County government is attempting, though maybe not intentionally, to repress affordable housing. The County cannot really control our lives, our homes or lifestyles even if some of the rules are aimed at that. There were no building or health codes until the 1960s here in Mendocino County. Somehow, we survived. There are many businesses and corporations that will benefit from these code restrictions. During the decades of exponential growth of the cannabis cultivation, winery, vineyard, tasting room, and the industrial expansion of legal and illegal much-desired drugs, there was almost no effective control or sensible effort to help reduce the cannabis or wine industry’s impact on our natural and social resources, nor did the county address the substandard and lack of housing for the immigrant and other workers. It was more or less a free-for-all for the drug entrepreneurs. Now at the sunset of our local cannabis industry, we have the county stepping forward to suppress affordable housing in an effort in part to curtail the uncontrolled growth and ramifications of the marijuana cultivation and its various encumbrances on the land and on many parcels throughout the county. It would be a disaster to target the cannabis industry and by way of collateral damage the opportunity for shelter of the people Mendocino County. Maybe if the county had done a better job 30 years ago planning for these economic onslaughts, things would have turned out much better for everyone.

Ironically this dual boom of drug production, should have given us citizens of Mendocino County the best of economic times ever. This certainly has not been the case for many people here.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the AV Housing Association and the community of Anderson Valley for their generous, capable, and caring efforts to address the problems of worker needs for social services and housing.

It comes down to the nature of human beings. Those who gain directly or indirectly from the cannabis and wine industries are more positive about them, and those that did not tend to gain financially from them, are more negative about them.

Soon the supervisors will decide on the threat of severe limitation and possible termination of Class K. That potential event could have a catastrophic influence on affordable housing.

I think most of us agree that it is inalienable right of people to have access to affordable shelter, we have to live somewhere. Unfortunately, money and not need, seems to be the current and dominant control factor considering who gets their own home or rental and who does not.

Ironically the County is currently deficient in meeting the state mandate for affordable housing. What is really needed here is you and your involvement, ensuring the well-being of yourselves, your kids and grandkids in this community, in terms of access to affordable shelter. This crisis has risen rapidly with very slight notification but you can contact our Supervisors: Dan Hamburg at 234-6047 or <> and John Mc Cowen at 463-4441 or <>. These two supervisors, who have already hosted one public meeting, will present their recommendations to the entire supervisorial board early next year.

One Comment

  1. Jeff Costello December 21, 2017

    Trivia alert: Pennsylvania measures appx. 46,000 square miles, Mendocino appx. 3000 sq miles. Mendocino is a much more pleasant and attractive place, maybe that’s why it seems bigger than it really is.

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