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Group Seeks to Diversify Area's Whitest County

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Mina Kim/KQED

John Young stands at one his favorite spots in Marin County. Young wants to involve more minorities in local policy decisions.

The federal government is pressuring Marin county officials to make Marin -- one of the whitest counties in the Bay Area -- more welcoming to minorities. It's part of a nationwide effort by The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to enforce the country's Fair Housing Act. HUD says Marin is not in compliance. And HUD's action is galvanizing one man who's fought for years to make Marin more inclusive.

If John Young could pick one spot in Marin to live, it would be this tiny beach just off the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The view of the bay is stunning.

"See that bluff right there," says Young, pointing a long finger at a small cliff jutting from the shore. "I would have me a nice little house right there."

Young likes the sweeping view. But he also likes the fact that he can hop right on the highway from here and make a quick escape to Oakland or some other East Bay city, where he says there are a lot more people who look like him.

Young is African American, and census data shows Marin County is one of the whitest counties in the Bay Area.

"And I hear all the time, 'I didn't even know there was any black people in Marin,'" says Young. "And a lot of my relatives before, they wouldn't even come over here because they thought that either the police were going to arrest them or they were going to get attacked by this crowd, so I usually have to go over there."

Young pauses. "It is a very tragic perception for a community to have when people feel like that."

It's a perception the 59-year-old Young has spent the last 20 years of his life working to change. Young heads the nonprofit group Grassroots Leadership Network of Marin, which aims to make the county more inclusive of minorities by giving them a voice in local policy.

With Marin County officials now on the hook to increase the county's diversity or risk losing federal money, Young thinks this might be his moment.

A routine audit by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) two years ago found that Marin County is not complying with civil rights laws, and has done a poor job creating housing opportunities for ethnic minorities and the disabled. The median price for a single-family home in Marin is about $750,000. People of color are concentrated in two parts of the county - Latinos in San Rafael's Canal district, and African Americans in Marin City, where Young grew up.

"All these roads," says Young as he drives through his hometown. "My father, as well as all the African Americans that came from the south, they built all this infrastructure for these people in Marin to build wealth."

Young's father, like the relatives of many African Americans living in Marin City, was lured to the county by shipyard work during World War II. His mother was a maid and died at a young age. After the war, Young's father worked as a seasonal laborer. He never bought a home. Young says many black families stayed in Marin City because of housing discrimination in surrounding towns. To him, the Marin then is the same Marin now.

"Where you have immigrants and people who move here, who do all the back-breaking work," says Young. "And now you don't want to provide opportunities for them."

Determined to take advantage of HUD's focus on Marin, this summer Young brought together housing advocates and leaders from the African-American, Latino, Asian and disabled communities -- many of whom had not worked together before.

Young says many of these groups were either competing with each other for limited public funds or grant dollars, had philosophical differences, or simply focused solely on their own community's needs. Minting themselves the Action Coalition for Equity, they hammered out key things they wanted in the county's HUD plan.

"It's good to see that we can, put our personal interests in a sense aside, and bring them together to rally around one specific topic," said Jesse Sandoval, an attorney and disability rights activist.

Last month, the group won a big victory when Marin County supervisors unanimously approved several of the groups' demands, including easing the zoning process for affordable housing, putting people of color on key committees, and expanding diversity training for county employees. HUD must approve the county's plan or require further changes.

"This is one of the few times that the door cracked open this little and we walked in strategically and just opened it up," says Young, reflecting on the day back at his favorite beach. "Now we've got stuff on the table that might have took us years to get on the table."

The group is now pushing for more money for bus transportation, a service that people of color use more often. But Young says they're also weary of pushing too hard. Since word has gotten out about the county's plan to mollify HUD, there has been push back. One city leader has expressed concern over a lack of resources to implement the plan. Some residents feel the federal government is overstepping in using federal policies to influence where people live.

But Young believes most people want a more integrated Marin.

"The voting patterns here suggest that Marin is a really liberal county," says Young. "So that's what I'm really banking on."

Young's next move is to draw upon that liberal base to shore up his group's new-found political clout.

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