We are all unincorporated now.

Unincorporated communities—which don’t have their own municipal governments—live at the mercies of their counties, who may or may not provide vital services. The pandemic is giving all Californians a taste of unincorporated life, since our county governments determine whether we can shop, play in a park, or send our kids to school.

Life under your county’s thumb is full of uncertainties and frustrations. The good news for most Californians is that county domination will end once COVID-19 recedes. The bad news is that California’s thousands of unincorporated communities will have to keep on living like this. 

Unincorporated places can be islands of development within urban areas or small towns in remote areas. A few, like Rancho Santa Fe, are wealthy enclaves, with residents rich enough to fend for themselves. But most unincorporated places are full of people desperate for a place to live. Without municipal government, such places can lack sidewalks and sewage services. There are often no local police to call, much less defund. 

I’ve been thinking about unincorporated places while reading BuzzFeed investigative editor Jessica Garrison’s new book, The Devil’s Harvest, about the California-based contract killer Jose Martinez. In her spellbinding account, Martinez gets away with killing at least 36 people over three decades for two reasons. One was that he murdered people the authorities didn’t care about—poor, non-white migrants who might be criminals themselves. 

The other was that he often committed crimes in out-of-the-way unincorporated jurisdictions, with little law enforcement. It also helped that Martinez lived in and around such communities, notably Earlimart, an unincorporated settlement of 8,700 along State Highway 99 in Tulare County.

Through her story of a killer, Garrison powerfully explains why such communities refuse to die. Even though Tulare County—following a general plan that declared unincorporated places “nonviable communities” with “little or no authentic future—withheld services like playgrounds or police stations, the San Joaquin Valley settlement grew anyway, as a home for farmworker families.

 “Down on the valley floor,” Garrison writes, “any notion of California as a progressive egalitarian land of opportunity disintegrates under the relentless, baking sun.”

The Earlimart example of attempted murder of community is common across California, especially in the Central Valley (where counties like Madera and San Joaquin also starved their unincorporated communities) and in the inland deserts of Southern California. Many of these places began as migrant worker camps.  In contrast, our unincorporated urban islands are often small, poor, and non-white suburban developments that cities “leap-frogged”, declining to annex them even as they added wealthier neighborhoods further out. 

In the past decade, California state law designated such places “DUCs”—Disadvantaged Unincorporated Communities—and required local governments to identify and include them in planning. Residents of some unincorporated places have sued and organized for better services. In her book, Garrison recounts another hopeful phenomenon: young adults who grew up in Earlimart returning home to teach in the schools and build the community.

Still, it’s not clear if the state government is willing to invest enough to bring such communities up to parity. What is clear, from decades of evidence, is that counties—with limited resources and too little power—can’t be trusted to do right by unincorporated places. That history, and the many county failures during the pandemic, argue for combining or eliminating counties, and instead creating more effective forms of regional government.

With all eyes on public health amidst this pandemic, it would be a fitting time to do more for unincorporated communities. Poor sanitation and weak infrastructure, especially around water and sewage systems, have left residents with higher rates of respiratory, gastrointestinal, and other chronic diseases.

Californians could start by paying more attention to such places and the people who live in them. In her book’s concluding chapters about the hit man Jose Martinez, Garrison notes that there was little coverage of his case in the diminished local media, and that authorities didn’t seem interested in accounting fully for all crime victims.

“Each time I published anything about his story, heartbreaking queries landed in my inbox,” Garrison writes. “The specifics vary, but the gist was always the same: Someone they love has been murdered or gone missing in the San Joaquin Valley. The authorities didn’t seem to care. Could I help them find out what happened to their loved one, find some semblance of justice or peace?” 


Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.