A Climate Agenda Without A Housing Agenda Is Incomplete

This week, San Francisco has the honor of hosting Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit. The Summit is the culmination of California’s extraordinary leadership on climate change under this Governor’s stewardship. The Summit brings together leaders from around the country and the world to strategize about how we can address this existential threat to our planet’s future. Particularly in this age of climate denial by our President and other government and corporate leaders, California must lead.

That leadership must include housing and land use patterns. In short, unless and until we allow more housing — including more housing density — near job centers and public transportation, we will continue to rely on sprawl development, forcing people to drive everywhere and to drive very long commutes.

Governor Brown signing Senate Bill 100

We’ve had a lot of successes in our state when it comes to climate. Just today, the Governor signed Senate Bill 100, which requires full de-carbonization of California’s electric grid by 2045. The state has aggressive zero-emission-vehicle goals, impactful energy efficiency requirements, anti-offshore drilling restrictions, and stringent auto emission standards.

All of these things (and others) are impactful and incredibly important. Yet, without a coherent, strategic, and results-oriented housing and land use agenda — something California does not yet have — we will not meet our climate goals. Housing, and land use patterns generally, are an essential component of any comprehensive climate strategy. If we don’t build enough housing and if we make it impossible to build housing near jobs and transit, then we push people into huge commutes, force them to drive everywhere they go, cover up open space, and spike carbon emissions. We also push people to live near the wild-land interface, which increases the damage wrought by wildfires.

Because California has historically provided almost complete local control to cities around housing, many cities have mostly banned new housing. The YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement seeks to legalize new housing by changing zoning laws

California is so far ahead in many climate-related areas, but we are decidedly behind on housing.

California has utterly failed to build enough housing for its growing population. Estimates of our state’s housing shortage are somewhere between 1.8 million and 3.5 million. According to our state legislative analyst, each year, California should be building 180,000 units of housing while producing less than half of that number (80,000). So our deficit is huge and growing. Over 97% of California cities aren’t meeting their housing goals, which are frequently too low to begin with.

California’s housing deficit has massive negative ramifications:

  • Explosive housing costs in more and more parts of the state
  • Evictions and displacement
  • A huge homeless population
  • Children not being able to remain or move back to the community where they grew up
  • Families being forced to move because they can’t afford housing for a growing family
  • Over-crowding
  • A poverty rate well above the national rate
  • Businesses choosing to expand outside the state because their workers can’t find affordable housing
  • People pushed into crushing commutes because they can’t afford housing anywhere near where they work

This housing shortage didn’t just happen. It exists because of policy choices that, over time, have led to what I call California’s “housing last” policy — our state’s de facto policy that it isn’t a priority to have enough housing for everyone who lives here. We zone land for remarkably little housing, and particularly so near job centers. For example, most of San Francisco is zoned for either single family homes or two unit buildings. Much of Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and other job centers are also zoned very low density. When land is zoned for very little housing — when we ban apartment buildings near jobs and transit — a housing shortage ensues and housing is spread out, leading to long commutes and increased carbon emissions.

California and its cities also impose lengthy, expensive, and unpredictable approval processes for housing. It’s not uncommon for a project entirely within zoning to take years and year, even a decade or more, to be approved. We allow endless appeals and lawsuits rather than having a defined and cabined public approval process with a beginning, middle, and end.

And, California does not invest nearly enough in subsidized housing affordable to low and very low income residents. The state has never done enough, particularly in light of the federal government’s withdrawal from affordable housing investment. The state made matters worse when it eliminated redevelopment — a key tool for funding low-income housing. When we don’t invest in subsidized housing for low income people, we increase homelessness and push low income people into long commutes and increased carbon emissions.

Part of the problem is that California, historically, has almost totally deferred to local communities to decide whether to allow new housing and, if so, how much. This almost complete local control is one significant factor for our housing shortage and for the banning of most new housing near job centers and transit. In recent years, the Legislature has begun to re-balance the state/local role around housing, recognizing that local control, while a great option in many circumstances, is only desirable when it delivers desirable results. Given the depth of our housing crisis, we can no longer rely on pure local control. But the process of shifting this paradigm is slow and gradual.

California’s housing-last housing policy has profound ramifications for our efforts to de-carbonize our economy. 40% of California’s carbon emissions come from transportation. While we are reducing California’s overall carbon emissions, emissions from transportation continue to increase. If we are serious about reducing and ultimately eliminating carbon emission in an effort to save our planet — as I know we are — then we must address the unsustainable land use patterns that force people to drive everywhere and that turn short commutes into extremely long commutes.

Senate Bill 827 led to a statewide debate about how to solve California’s housing crisis.

How do we tackle this 40%-and-growing segment of our carbon emissions? How do we change unsustainable sprawl land use patterns so that people drive less and emit less carbon?

We need to approve housing faster and ensure we are building plenty of housing affordable to low income people. And, as we build housing more quickly for people at all income levels, we need to do it sustainably. We need to stop relying on additional sprawl development — hyper-low density, spread out housing that isn’t anywhere near job centers or public transportation — and move toward dense, multi-unit housing in job center and near transit. By doing so, we can finally begin to grapple with California’s unsustainable land use patterns; allow more people to live near jobs and transit and thus reduce their driving; and grapple with transportation-related carbon emissions.

This year, I authored Senate Bill 827, which would authorize dense, multi-unit housing near public transportation. The bill effectively “unbanned” apartment buildings near transit. The bill sparked a major statewide conversation about what we mean when we say we want housing to be more affordable: in other words, do we actually mean it or are we just complaining. And the bill sparked a conversation about how to move toward more sustainable land use patterns.

SB 827 didn’t move forward this year — truly difficult bills often don’t move forward in their first year — but we are working to reintroduce it for 2019. I’m committed to this critically important issue.

Let’s make California’s climate agenda truly comprehensive. Let’s grapple with our housing challenges in a meaningful and climate-friendly way.

CA State Senator. Urbanist. Environmentalist. Advocate for transit, housing, clean energy, criminal justice reform, health, ending poverty. Democrat. 🏳️‍🌈