Crowding Out the Housing Agenda

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

Housing expert and friend Carol Galante has drunk the Kool-Aid. She’s bought into the theory that things other than California’s profound undersupply of housing should determine state policy. In this case, of course, it’s environmental policy.

Galante is a housing pro. For a long time, she worked under housing guru Donald Terner at the now-famous BRIDGE Housing Development Corporation, the nation’s most prolific non-profit developer of affordable housing. After Terner’s untimely death in the early 90’s, Galante took over BRIDGE and ably ran it for over 15 years. She was later appointed by President Obama to be the nation’s chief housing policy-maker and now runs UC Berkeley’s new housing think tank.

But, even after acknowledging that California’s current housing woes have been “caused in large part by a thriving economy and a multi-decade-long undersupply of housing relative to population and job growth” Galante, along with fellow academicians, said in a newly released study she thinks lawmakers and policy makers need to “assess the environmental and economic impacts of housing production scenarios that could help meet the state’s proposed 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target under Senate Bill 32 (Pavley, 2016).” In other words, subordinate housing policy to environmental policy.

Galante abhors CEQA and the mess of housing permitting the state’s premier environmental law has made. With ambition little more than to obstruct – and $150 – a person can walk into superior court, file a CEQA claim and bring a multi-million-dollar housing project to a grinding halt. Normally, what follows is an unbelievable list of hoops the developer has to jump through before permitting can continue. Of course, after this “mitigation” the project looks nothing like the original – always with far fewer housing units.

But, regrettably, Galante is falling victim to the clarion buzz of environmentalists who have latched onto climate change as their all-consuming dictum. In their “my way or the highway” approach to the state meeting its greenhouse gas emission goals, environmentalists are now insisting that all new housing be infill.

That position runs afoul of at least three separate but meaningful truisms:

  1. According to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, at best only 25% of the state’s housing needs can be met by building infill.
  2. High-density, infill housing is the least popular among local elected officials and the premier target of NIMBY-led CEQA lawsuits.
  3. Well over 80% of household growth over the last 15 years has been in lower-density suburbs.

Infill is desirable but impractical in most cases. The cost of land, construction type, CEQA mitigation and other requirements keep infill from penciling out.

“Right Type, Right Place: Assessing the Environmental and Economic Impacts of Infill Residential Development through 2030” – the recent work of NEXT 10, a futuristic think tank created following the enactment of Assembly Bill 32, the landmark “Global Warming Solutions Act” of 2006, and to which Galante gives an opinion or two – presents itself as a bona fide housing study.

In truth, it’s an environmental screed propounding such myths as “infill households would drive roughly 18 miles less per weekday than non-infill households” and dwellers of new, coastal infill neighborhoods save money – “renters still save $26/month and homeowners save $13/month”. It even alludes to the preposterous assertion that all housing needed between now and 2030 can be produced in infill neighborhoods.

Indeed, Right Type, Right Place is no housing study. In its Executive Summary, it states:

Of the three housing production scenarios analyzed, the [study] found that the infill-focused housing growth scenario provides the best outcomes for meeting the state’s climate goals while also producing economic benefits. This scenario could help avert at least 1.79 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually compared to the business-as-usual scenario, based on reduced driving miles and household energy usage alone. That number is equivalent to:

  • Averting emissions from 378,108 passenger vehicles and from burning over 201 million gallons of gasoline annually;
  • Almost 2/3 of the total statewide emissions decrease California achieved between 2013 and 2014 alone; and
  • Almost 15 percent of the emissions reductions needed to reach the state’s Senate Bill 375 (Steinberg, 2008) targets from statewide land use changes.

Together with other land use changes that this housing scenario could stimulate, the savings would help the state meet its goals of reducing emissions from a projected 431 million metric tons in 2020 to 260 million metric tons by 2030, as required by state law.

Other than the first sentence, maybe, none of the above comes close to addressing the housing pickle we’re in. It all has to do with meeting environmental goals, not housing ones.

Even prior to the passage of AB 32, Sacramento was obsessed with the notion that everything that gets built in this state has to be first run through an environmental filter, aka CEQA. Again, Galante strongly rejects this sentiment. Since the new carbon-emission scoring law’s enactment in 2006, however, things have gotten worse – and has some new, unlikely recruits. Now, to build any housing it has to score as infill, or close to transit, or generating miniscule vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

If we are serious about emerging from this housing crisis, we’ve got to cut this nonsense out of the permitting process. We just need to start building again.

 

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.