What happens when most of your county workers can’t afford to live in that county?
What happens when most of your county workers can’t afford to live in that county? - 
Listen To The Story
Marketplace

This is part three of a three-part series. Read the first and second parts.

Commutes can be long for people who have jobs in expensive real estate markets like Marin County, a suburban enclave just north of San Francisco. And there are economic forces driving the long drives.

Consider the commute of Phillip Thomas, a communications technician for the County of Marin. His department maintains things like jail security cameras and radio equipment for fire departments. On a recent foggy morning, his drive to work took 55 minutes. “I was pleased about that,” he says.

“Pleased” because, even though 55 minutes is twice the national average for a one-way commute, Thomas's trips often take even longer — up to 80 minutes. Thomas lives in Solano County, some 30 miles from where he works in Marin. He says he'd love to live closer to his job, but when he's looked for homes in Marin “the housing prices are just too high.”

Thomas earns more than $80,000 a year. In Marin, where the median price for a single family home is around $1 million, he wouldn't qualify for most home loans. So he drives in from somewhere else, just like most of his coworkers.

Depending on which Census survey you look at, between about 40 and 60 percent of the workforce in Marin commutes in from another county. Thomas says for him, that means more time on the road and increased frustration. “I hate traffic,” he says. “But most of all it is a few hours out of the day that I don't get to spend with my family. And I like my family.”

Beyond those personal costs, long commutes might also have impacts on the communities that workers like Thomas drive into each day to serve, says Thomas Peters, president of the Marin Community Foundation, which funds and advocates for more affordable housing in Marin County.

“You've got people that are making absolutely critical contributions to the life and quality of life for individuals and families in Marin,” Peters says.

He argues that expensive places like Marin can benefit from having more of the pre-school teachers, the home health care workers, the MRI technicians that work in the county, able to live and raise their families there too.

“It’s true at a cellular level and its true at a social level — there's a real payoff for diversity,” Peters says.

On a more practical level, Peters warns that ultimately workers who can't afford to live in Marin may get so fed up with their commutes that they find jobs elsewhere, closer to home, leaving critical middle and low-income service jobs difficult to fill.

Follow Krissy Clark at @@kristianiaclark