The best thing we can say about the 10-year-old SB 375, according to a recent report by the University of California, Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, is that it “offers valuable lessons for other states and regions attempting to mitigate climate change through sustainable development.”  That’s it.

We’re not able to report that this decade-old piece of legislative mastery has helped California reach its greenhouse gas (GHG)-reduction goals by XX percent or XX years.  Nor can we say that SB 375 has set the stage for more high-density, transit-oriented development or has been fully embraced by local planning agencies and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) for building more housing and nearby transportation.  After 10 years, one wonders:  what good did SB 375 do us?

What we can say is that, so far, SB 375 has flopped.  Indeed, the report on the law is full of excuses as to why it didn’t work:  sky-high housing prices; building housing where it’s not needed; a reliance on car-dependent, “sprawling suburban development”; the legislation’s incentive-funding program is flawed; and infill housing is too expensive, slow to complete and subject to neighborhood opposition.

If anything, SB 375 reminds us that the market in California largely determines most housing, each project has profoundly different implications for communities and the state has always had difficulty legislating local land-use from Sacramento.  Moreover, the study admits that two profound goals of the state – avoiding the acceleration of climate change and overcoming its severe housing affordability problems – are mutually exclusive.  This is self-evident.  So, why did the framers of SB 375 have us wait 10 years to finally agree on this?

In fairness, the Center’s analysis did show improvements among certain counsels of government (regional governments, or COGs) in shifting planning to more urban-centric locations.  For example, the Bay Area COG allocation of housing units to high job-growth localities increased from 64% to 72% after SB 375 was passed.  Similar gains occurred in the Sacramento and San Diego COGs.  On the other hand, the state’s largest COG – that for Southern California – showed a decrease.

This falls well short of SB 375’s promise.  The law was supposed to deliver us a new, climate-change-conscious way to plan for and fund housing and transportation.  The best the report can do, though, is tell us since “aligning land use, transportation and sustainability are (sic) more important than ever as it becomes clear how interrelated these issues are” achieving elusive climate-change goals are still more important than, say, building needed housing.

The report recommends some “improvements” first need to be made to the law:

But, these are sure to become smallish, technical changes to the bill and will solve little.  Moreover, increasing financial incentives, by themselves, could be a fortune.  And, they may be a waste of time, as well.  The study readily acknowledges that some localities are already reverting to their typical “boys will be boys” obstinance to state goals.  The report admits, for example, that some of the wealthier jurisdictions are not participating, leaving the data-gathering a mess and unrepresentative.  This has happened many times before.  When it comes to directing land-use, localities regularly ignore Sacramento, and are doing so again with impunity.

The report asserts that SB 375 is progressing, albeit slowly.  It cites the regional government of San Diego, SANDAG, to exemplify that progress.  Future housing projections therethe report says, are shifting heavily towards multifamily units and the (San Diego) region is working to drive transportation investments to where the housing is planned for now or later on.  According to regional staff, they’re starting to see demand for affordable, high-density housing – both in downtown and the suburbs – “in places that 10 years ago had no multifamily.”

Despite this “progress”, however, it’s doubtful the landscape will be changed enough by the time the AB 32 deadlines roll around.  The report agrees.  It’s too early, it says, to specifically assess changes in housing and transportation production under SB 375, since many of the planning processes and programs are in their early stages.  The report says it remains to be seen whether SB 375 will help spur a shift in development patterns to meet climate change and affordability goals.  And, even if enough time had passed to see results, the report says, too many other factors affect development patterns to easily attribute any changes to the influence the new law.

This is silly by half.  Too soon?  After 10 years?  And, the study’s authors conclude by admitting “the best planning and the most politically viable planning may not be synonymous”.  This, too, is self-evident – and why SB 375 was destined to founder – but did we have to wait 10 years to finally acknowledge this?

We can all agree – SB 375 has been a flop.