Addressing Changes in Bolinas: Evan Wilhelm On Her Work to Bring the Community Together

THE POPULATION IN Bolinas has decreased at a steep and scary rate for the last 10 years,” says Evan Wilhelm, Bolinas Community Land Trust’s 29-year-old managing director. A bevy of short-term rental sites like Airbnb have literally put Bolinas on the map — the opposite of what residents of the small coastal town, known to tear down its signage to deter tourists, wants.

“Many homes that 10 years ago were either long-term rentals or owner occupied now sit empty as second homes or are used as vacation rentals, and the long-term rentals that do remain are generally small and unaffordable. Studios can easily go for $2,500. A family- size home is nearly impossible to find and is typically rented for over $4,000,” says Wilhelm.

“People are leaving because they can’t afford to stay. It’s that simple.” As the housing affordability crisis continues to change the way life looks in the Bay Area, BCLT is coming up with creative solutions. And for her part, Wilhelm is helping the organization’s efforts to buy local properties, protecting the unique community that raised her by making it possible for people to continue to build lives in Bolinas. Here’s how she got involved, and how others can too.

How did you become active in BCLT?

I moved back to Bolinas, which is my hometown. I had been gone for seven years, and so much had changed. There was constant conversation on the street about how everything was changing, and a lot of fear and sadness around rising prices and a shifting feeling of community.

In response, in 2015 I, along with a few friends and my boyfriend (now husband) Blair, started holding community meetings at the Bolinas Community Center to talk through issues with a focus on finding solutions. We would bring a topic to the table and anyone could come and talk about the emotion around it. For example, graffiti on the beach walls. What’s the problem? What’s the emotion around it? How can we move forward and find a middle ground? It was cool because it was a group of us who were a bit younger, and there’s such a force of the older hippie generation out here, and a lot of them were very excited to see a group of young people stepping forward to talk about community and what Bolinas means to us.

From that, I heard about the Bolinas Land Trust. Arianne Dar, who’s our executive director now, was president of the board at the time and suggested that I think about an internship with the Land Trust. There was a lot of turnover after that, and with all of that movement I ended up doing property management and we kept shifting my role — it’s always shifting. Now I’m doing a lot of PR and community work and fundraising. It’s a full-circle thing.

Has the general mission of BCLT shifted since its inception in the 1980s?

The focus has always been on affordable housing and maintaining the character of the town. But because of this housing crisis and because affordability in the Bay Area at large has changed so much, it’s really changed what affordable housing means.

The people who are currently struggling to stay in Bolinas now include families, as well as people who provide essential services like teachers and emergency staff and business owners. There’s been a really big shift in the last 10 years — it seems like nearly half of the houses that used to be long-term rentals are now short-term rentals. So, the mission is the same, but the stakes feel a lot higher.

It’s about keeping Bolinas a hometown and place where people grow up. A place where people are creating a life — not just passing through.

What’s something that you would tell someone who’s not familiar with the housing crisis?

I think it’s really important for people to understand how essential long-term residents are to the health of a place. Bolinas is a really small town. If we lose 10 kids from our school, we feel that. That means potentially that two grades are going to get put together, or a teacher will have to be moved.

When water district employees can’t find a place to live, that has serious consequences — that means that if you have a water issue or leak on your property, there’s no one down the road who can come fix it right away. When you live on a street in a neighborhood that’s filled with empty homes, it’s not a neighborhood anymore. And for service — if the carpenters and plumbers and electricians can’t live in town, someone will have to drive hours to get to you to should you have an issue.

I think sometimes people look at a place like Bolinas and think, “Oh, it’s so beautiful” and a great little town to come in and out of. But the people really make this place special. And affordability and community ownership are essential to keeping it running.

The housing crisis is affecting such a broad group of people, and it’s very threatening to small-town living in California. Because Bolinas is a town that is a finite space — we’re bookended by park lands, and there’s so much amazing work that people did back in the ’70s to create these really strict rules around development, and we’re in the coastal zone — we have a real opportunity to make a difference here.

The Land Trust owning homes means that Bolinas owns homes. So, it doesn’t matter what’s happening economically — we have systems in place that allow us to be certain that there will always be places for people to live and work here and grow up here and grow old here.

What should people know about Bolinas?

We aren’t just a good place to learn to surf and to lie on the beach. We are a fishing village — we have a long history of families who make their living as fishermen and supply fresh local fish to our county. We aren’t just some incredible farm stands, we are farmers.

The first organic farms in the country were started here. Generations of families still farm in Bolinas and keep our community grounded in the earth. We are a volunteer fire department, we are small, locally owned businesses, we are a K-8 school with teachers who inspire far beyond the classroom.

We are a town of hardworking, big-dreaming, fun-loving characters. We value the natural landscape, and we honor it. We have a long history of change and adaptation, and through each new chapter of town history we are full of proud, stubborn people who come together to protect the place we love.

What are you and BCLT excited about right now?

In the last year and a half, we’ve been really picking up steam and have grown as an organization. Right now, we have five new properties that we intend to turn into both rental and homeownership opportunities within the next five years. These projects will make a big impact on our community and help a lot of people. Our current projects have been made possible by some really incredible donors, grants, community involvement and hard work from our board and staff. It’s exciting to see progress.

What’s the community process around that?

As often as we have big updates, we hold community meetings. We’re always available in our office for questions and conversations. We’re trying to be as transparent as possible, because it is a lot of change, which can feel intimidating, so we want to make sure that people feel comfortable and excited and realize that our hearts are in the right place and it’s for the community.

How can people who want to help get involved?

Come learn how some of this stuff works, come to our meetings when we discuss projects, come volunteer. Right now, we’re in the middle of a capital campaign called Homes from the Heart — we’re looking to raise $2 million total (we’re already halfway there, with $1 million to go) that would be in a revolving fund.

One of the issues with affordable housing in Bolinas is that when something comes on the market, the price is so high that by the time we have funding lined up, that house is gone. So, in an effort to have money on hand, we’re setting up a revolving fund that can be reused over and over.

So, donate! Getting that fund set up will make a huge difference in current and future projects. We’re looking for donors who would be willing to pledge for multiple years — we have long- term plans so it’s helpful to have returning donors. I hope that people understand that supporting the Land Trust is supporting the preservation of Bolinas. We need people to step up and believe in Bolinas with us.