California Senate Shelves Bill Tying Affordable Housing to Climate Crisis, Public Transit (1/2)

Housing located next to a light-rail line in Seattle, Washington; Photo Credit: Bruce Englehardt | Wikimedia Commons

By Steve Horn

On May 17, California Senate Democrats decided not to vote on a landmark bill aiming to tackle the affordable housing and climate crises concurrently. Instead, SB 50, also known as the California More HOMES Act of 2019, will be tabled until the 2020 legislative session.

SB 50 has intersectional policy goals. It mandates building affordable housing within a quarter to half mile radius of public transit centers statewide to situate people closer to those hubs, with the goal of getting greenhouse gas-emitting and climate change-causing automobiles off the roads. The bill’s proponents said it would help with California’s infamous traffic jams.

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Though its goals align with activists’ concerns about the climate crisis, SB 50 has come under fire from localities, climate justice advocates, and affordable housing activists because the language in the bill was found insufficient by advocates working on the front lines of the climate crisis.

For example, in order to fast track the regulatory process, SB 50 also calls for greatly limiting local governmental authority over land use decisions and an exemption to the state’s bedrock environmental law. And to the chagrin of affordable housing proponents, the legislation also only calls for a relatively small percentage of the housing buildout to have a federal affordable housing classification.

Democratic Senator Scott Wiener, a real estate industry ally who represents the San Francisco area and serves as the chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, sponsored SB 50. Though it has yet to receive an endorsement by newly-elected Governor Gavin Newsom, he had essentially endorsed the “spirit” of SB 50 in an April 18 interview with Southern California Public Radio.

“Regardless of the details of the bill, which are profoundly important, which is density around transit corridors, the spirit of what Scott Wiener is trying to advance is critical,” said Newsom. “We simply cannot deny the fact that we can change the status quo unless we get serious about increasing the production of housing in this state.”

After the tabling of SB 50, Newsom reiterated his support of the dual transit-housing approach.

“To the extent that we can find a pathway to take core components of SB 50 and getting it over the finish line, I’m committed to helping support that effort,” Newsom said.

During Newsom’s first months in office, he has attempted to connect the dots between the affordable housing crisis, lack of public transportation, wildfire proliferation and the climate crisis.

Newsom’s top climate policy aide Kate Gordon—in her first public remarks on behalf of the administration, made on April 25 at the North American Carbon World conference held in Los Angeles, attended by The Real News—said the wildfires portray the “intersection of climate policy and land use policy” in sprawl-style housing development patterns.

Wildfires, she said, also provide an opportunity for the state to look at “how are we going to build housing, build transportation, think about our economic growth strategy, think about our workforce strategy, think about our natural working lands.”

It appeared that SB 50 would be the mechanism for accomplishing the list of feats laid out by Gordon. But Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who serves as the chamber’s President pro tempore (Majority Leader), said in a statement that she believes it is important not to rush the policymaking process.

“To be clear, the bill is not dead, and this is the first year of a two-year session,” Atkins wrote on Twitter. “Short of significantly amending the bill and limiting its applications in large swaths of the state, there was no path to move forward this year.”

Competing explanations exist as to what ultimately caused Senate leadership to kill SB 50 for 2019.

The political influence of Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Anthony Portantino, who represents a wealthy suburban district in Los Angeles County has been cited as a reason for SB 50’s tabling. The Los Angeles City Council, as well as the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in Wiener’s own district, also opposed the bill—another example of municipality worries about the bill usurping zoning control.

Less explored, though, has been the role of opposition to the bill coming from the very stakeholders who agreed with the legislation’s stated dual purpose: affordable housing activists and environmental justice advocates.

The stalling of the bill means it’s back to the drawing board for those seeking statewide solutions on these issues. And with the 2020 election looming and California situated as an early major state for the Democratic presidential primaries, it remains unclear how much major legislation will move next year.

Cities, Climate Justice Opposition

A central tenet of arguments in favor of SB 50 is that the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in California is the transportation sector, which totals up to 41 percent of the state’s inventory, according to the California Air Resources Board. Most of that comes from the state’s residents driving fossil fuel-powered cars. SB 50 would have been an easy way to lower those emissions, which should be a priority in a state that considers itself a global leader on climate change policy.

But critics within the state’s environmental justice community do not support the bill in its current form because it calls for an exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process in building housing under the auspices of the legislation.

Climate justice groups have argued that CEQA—a bill passed in 1970 by Governor Ronald Reagan mandating a robust environmental review and public commenting process for major project proposals—serves as an essential safeguard for communities. They have maintained that they have been blocked out of the negotiation room on SB 50, particularly as it relates to the CEQA provision.

On April 2, over 100 of those groups sent a letter to Newsom expressing concerns about that portion of the bill: “Development interests have long complained about California’s flagship environmental law,” they wrote. “Now they are trying to blame CEQA homeless shelters for the state’s housing crisis. However, CEQA did not cause the housing crisis, and weakening CEQA will not solve it. Rather, if implemented properly, CEQA can be an effective tool in helping to address California’s housing problems by encouraging sustainable development.”

CEQA reform has long existed at the top of the list of demands for state real estate developers, though many dispute whether it has actually ever slowed down development plans to begin with.

SB 50 is just one of eight affordable housing bills currently advancing through the state legislature which call for major CEQA exemptions. Those bills limit the ability to apply (or sue for lack of application) CEQA in the buildout of homeless shelters, temporary living motels, homes within federally-defined Opportunity Zones, and CEQA-related court proceedings aimed toward affordable housing.

“[Environmental Justice] communities care deeply about affordable housing. However, CEQA is not the problem to affordable housing production, and the solutions will not come from further weakening this important law,” wrote a group of state environmental justice groups of SB 621, which limits the ability to file CEQA violation lawsuits as applied to affordable housing developments, and passed 29-5 in the Senate on May 23. “Expediting legal actions and limiting judicial remedies will only hurt environmental justice communities that often rely on the courts to protect their environmental health.”

For his part, Newsom has also repeatedly expressed interest in neutering CEQA on behalf of real estate development.

“We are past the point of absurdity with some of the abuses we are seeing,” Newsom said in a speech during his first weeks in office in January, a line often used by the real estate industry.

And then, in his February 12 State of the State Address, Newsom essentially endorsed the CEQA tenet within SB 50 by saying he is willing to offer the exemption for building housing close to mass transit centers.

“I also want to acknowledge other factors beyond city planning that have limited our ability to provide housing,” Newsom said in that speech. “In recent years, we’ve expedited judicial review on CEQA for professional sports. It’s time we do the same thing for housing.”

Beyond CEQA, SB 50 also calls for the gutting of local zoning laws. That aspect of the bill has come under strong opposition by cities throughout the state via their lobbying organization, the League of California Cities.

“The League of California Cities objects to allowing developers of certain types of housing projects to override locally developed and adopted height limitations, housing densities, parking requirements, and limit design review standards,” reads a May 8 letter from League of California Cities. “By allowing developers to override state-approved housing plans, SB 50 seriously calls to question the need for cities to develop these community based plans and the justification for spending millions of state and local funds on the planning process.”

Some cities have also expressed interest in gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to ensure zoning remains the exclusive regulatory duty of cities and counties.

Republican leadership, too, opposes the bill due to the zoning provision.

“Since it was a Senate bill, we haven’t analyzed it thoroughly,” said Assembly Minority Leader Marie Waldron (R-Escondido). “But as a general principle, any solution to the housing crisis needs the support of local governments and housing advocates. I’m disappointed that SB 50 fell short of that goal.”

SB 50 “Trickle-Down”

Environmental and local zoning concerns, particularly the latter, have proven instrumental in staving off passage of SB 50. Beyond that, though, affordable housing advocates have also pointed out that the bill only calls for a small portion of those housing units to go to low-income individuals. And that housing does not even necessarily need to be built within close proximity to the transit centers, due to a loophole in the legislation.

The bill allows for real estate companies looking to build within the quarter mile to half mile range or to offer “a comparable affordability contribution toward housing offsite that is affordable to lower income households,” if low-income housing does not fit into their development plans.

Image Credit: California Legislative Information
Image Credit: California Legislative Information

Housing is a Human Right, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, has called the bill “fundamentally flawed” because it says it does not meet the large-scale demand for affordable housing. After SB 50 failed to pass in 2019, the group lauded the California Senate for slowing down the legislative, adding that it hopes that nothing resembling the bill in its current form ever passes.

“SB 50 pushes luxury housing for a housing affordability crisis,” said René Christian Moya, the group’s director, in a press release. “It will make the real estate industry billions, but will worsen gentrification and displacement throughout the state. Housing Is A Human Right will continue to fight the bill and ensure that it does not pass in 2020.”

Instead of SB 50, Housing Is A Human Right has called for a rent control policy and a legal mandate to do a more robust build-out of affordable housing. Californians had a chance to create a state mandate for rent control during the 2018 election cycle, but the electorate struck down the Proposition 10 ballot measure by a 59.43 percent to 40.57 percent vote tally.

Wiener, who introduced SB 50, is a major recipient of campaign contributions from the real estate industry. He has expressed disappointment that SB 50 had fallen by the wayside for the 2019 session.

“While I’m extremely disappointed by this unilateral action by the Chair – an action that fails to appreciate the gravity of our deep housing shortage – I’m 100% committed to advancing the bill, hopefully this year, but absolutely in January,” said Wiener in a statement published on Facebook. “We’re either committed to meaningfully address this crisis, or we’re not. We need to stop with the talk and start with the action. Let’s keep fighting for a better housing future for California.”

“Sprawl” Housing, Wildfires

One of the other major motives driving SB 50 is to reverse the trend of building “sprawl” housing in favor of that of the high-density variety. Many analysts and scholars see the explosion of wildfires, sprawl-style housing throughout California and the climate crises as interrelated.

Suburban sprawl, often located within what scholars have coined the “wildland-urban interface”, generally has few convenient public transit options and has put millions of people on the highways in greenhouse gas-emitting vehicles. The climate change impacts resulting from having those millions of cars on the roads per day in the country’s most populous state have included historically large wildfires.

Those living within that “wildland-urban interface” area now face a significant risk of damage or destruction of their homes. That risk came to life in a major way in 2018, a year which saw 8,527 wildfires in the state burn an area of over 1.8 million acres. Over 98 people died as a result.

Wildfires, and what to do to ensure the next ones do not end up as deadly hellfires, have served as a central focus of Newsom’s climate policy plans.

The Camp Fire in Paradise, California, a small town in the state’s northern tier, epitomizes the relationship between sprawl, the climate crises and the most lethal wildfire in state history which capped off the most lethal wildfire year in state history. The Camp Fire was also the sixth deadliest in U.S. history. It spread 153,336 acres (nearly 240 square miles), decimating 18,804 structures, wreaking $16.5 billion worth of damage, and killing 85 people in the process.

“The fires are really important because they’re symptomatic of the immediate impacts and the acute impacts that we’re feeling from climate change already,” said Gordon to the audience at North American Carbon World.

A state investigation published on May 15 pinned the blame for the fires on utility company Pacific Gas & Electric, whose electricity generating equipment started the fire. But many scholars and the Newsom administration have also pointed to a more complex explanation, positing that suburban sprawl, or housing built on land situated within the “wildland-urban interface,” also is a major part of the problem.

“Cities in wildland-urban interface zones, especially in California, are particularly vulnerable,” a 2018 article published in Pacific Standard explained. “The wildland-urban interface is where houses, and the infrastructure that goes with them, meet and intermingle with wildland vegetation, making them vulnerable to wildfire.”

According to a June 2018 study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 30 percent of California’s housing exists within this “wildland-urban interface” territory. Due to this housing arrangement, the “Wildfires and Climate Change: California’s Energy Future report published by the Newsom administration said that other fires ignited by electricity lines could potentially happen in the future, as well.

“Communities need electricity—including communities in remote, high fire-risk areas,” reads the report. “As long as electrical lines run through tinder-dry forests, California can mitigate but not eliminate utility-sparked fires.”

During her speech at North American Carbon World, Gordon said that a conversation about sprawl housing development in California is also a conversation about tackling climate change and adaptation to the climate crisis. She added that she believes climate policymakers must stop thinking of the issues in “silos” because the various issues have “come crashing together.”

“I think for maybe decades we’ve been thinking, ‘Oh, there’s the physical climate impact stuff over here and we’re going to have to worry about that and we’re going to have to do adaptation,” said Gordon. “And then over here, there’s all the important programs we’re doing to reduce our emissions and look out to our future emissions.’”

Adding to the intersectional nature of the crisis, Gordon said that many people who live in rural areas of California do so due to lack of affordable housing in urban areas, in a state with the most expensive housing prices in the United States. Daily long commutes many workers take to urban areas and then back out to more affordable rural enclaves, too, have a climate change impact.

“I think the Governor really sees and we really see the fires as sort of a microcosm of this issue of these two major crises that are affecting California and much of the world, which is the affordability and inequality crisis meeting up with the climate crisis,” Gordon said.

Separate from SB 50, Newsom has also undertaken his own executive branch efforts to bolster housing for low-income individuals located in close proximity to public transit hubs.

One of the ways he has done so is by introducing a budget provision calling for the state’s cities to “link transportation and other non-housing funds with housing goals by the end of 2022.” If they do not do so, Newsom’s proposal calls for road maintenance budget money not to go to cities which lack housing near transit hubs by July 2023.

The “funds … may be withheld from any jurisdiction that does not have a compliant housing element and has not zoned or entitled for its annual housing goals,” a budget proposal says.

“Density Transfer”

Some cities, including one recently in San Diego County, have also taken things into their own hands to accomplish the goals laid out by Gorden and SB 50 without getting rid of local control or gutting CEQA in the process. They have done so by passing a legislative solution known as “density transfer.”

According to the Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to “smart growth” which opposes sprawl, density transfer provides an incentive-based regulatory mechanism for preserving open space.

“In certain jurisdictions, developers can increase the density of a zone proposed for development by purchasing property intended for public usage and transferring the permitted density of that area into their proposed developmental zone,” explained Greenbelt on its website.

Density transfer is also sometimes called transfer of development credits (TDC) or transfer of development rights (TDR). Rick Pruetz, a scholar and advocate for the regulatory mechanism who consults with California cities and cities nationwide to implement it, calls it a form of cities aiming to “grow up” in a 2013 paper published in the academic journal Built Environment.

“In contrast to [the] sprawl model, many U.S. jurisdictions plan to ‘grow up’ by intensifying and revitalizing their centres while preserving critical resources within their urban core and surrounding rural area,” wrote Pruetz, who also formerly served as the City Planner for 14 years in Burbank, the entertainment industry studio city located just north of Los Angeles.

Pruetz has documented that over 257 municipalities across the country and 37 across the world have developed versions of the policy, including 30 cities in California. Oregon also has a statewide program allowing counties to enter into density transfer regulatory arrangements, while Washington state has a similar program in partnership with many of its counties.

With the goal to “grow up” in mind, on May 1 the Escondido City Council passed legislation in a 5-0 vote creating a density transfer policy to incentivize the development of more housing in its downtown core. A chunk of that housing would have an affordable distinction. Escondido is a city with a population of over 150,000 which borders San Diego to the north which just voted in a liberal majority for the first time in a generation during the 2018 election cycle.

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Density transfer would “help incentivize future development and keep it in the downtown area to support nearby retailers, services, entertainment, and attract other businesses that are part of a desirable downtown economy,” said Bill Martin, Director of Community Development for the City of Escondido, in presenting the legislative proposal before the May 1 vote. Martin also called density transfer a form of development centered around “smart growth locations, rather than sprawl, which benefits everyone in the community.”

Escondido city officials had expressed skepticism about SB 50, and the legislation came up prior to the vote the City Council took on the density transfer measure.

“All this great talking and doing and stuff, we might just throw it out the window if SB 50 passes and we can’t protect anything that we have had local control over,” Escondido City Council member Olga Diaz, a Democrat, said at the hearing. “People have concerns here today about what we’re doing with density transfer, but what they should really be concerned about is losing local control over what we might eventually adopt.”

With SB 50 failing for now, though, it means that development measures like Escondido’s density transfer can exist unimpeded by that bill’s dictates in California.

“TDR can protect against sprawl. But it is most successful when there is political will and significant investment of resources,” Amanda Brown-Stevens, CEO of the Greenbelt Alliance, told The Real News.

Brown also said that proponents of density transfer and SB 50 “have shared goals but are addressing different [regulatory] barriers to compact development.”

“Perhaps as wildfire vulnerability, groundwater management needs, longer commutes, and habitat conservation needs compound, we can find the will to make TDR more successful and more attractive,” she said.

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Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.