latest news How to tackle California’s housing and climate crises together

California’s housing shortage and climate crisis are often treated as if they are unrelated to each other. In fact, they are deeply interconnected.

We need to look not just at how many homes we build, but also where we build them. That’s the idea and the promise behind new legislation backed by a new coalition of housing and environmental advocates.

California must add at least 2.5 million new housing by 2030 to meet its needs. Decades of underproduction have exacerbated soaring rental prices, put homeownership increasingly out of reach for most Californians, and pushed more of our neighbors into homelessness than in any other state. The housing shortage is largely due to local government policies that prevent new housing from being built in existing neighborhoods, forcing most development to peri-urban and rural areas.

Without enough affordable housing close to jobs, schools, transit, and other resources in existing communities, Californians are increasingly forced to travel long distances from remote areas that are often more vulnerable to Forest fires, flood and other climate-accelerated disasters. Between 1990 and 2010, half of the subdivision in California was at the edge of wilderness areas, known as “Wild-Urban Interfaces”, or WUIs. As a result, approximately 25% of Californians live in areas at high risk of catastrophic fire.

The expansion of development into natural lands not only puts more people at risk; it also increases the likelihood, frequency and devastation of fires, floods and other disasters. Human activities start most forest fires. And development often covers floodplains that might otherwise soak up rainfall and runoff, making flooding more frequent and destructive.

California has lost more than a million acres of natural habitat to development over the past 20 years. Forests, wetlands, coastal areas, grasslands and rivers provide us all with clean air, fresh water and access to green spaces. Moving housing to more remote areas is fragmenting wilderness, reducing community resilience, and exacerbating the global biodiversity and climate crises affecting every Californian.

We need to reframe how we think about the relationship between housing policies and climate change. We need to drastically increase the number of homes we build, but if we do so in the undeveloped wilderness-urban interface, we will only deepen the climate crisis. Building homes away from jobs not only requires longer commutes and new roads, which increases the pollution that causes climate change. It also reduces the landscape’s ability to store carbon by covering natural and agricultural lands that would otherwise remove it from the atmosphere. And it destroys or degrades wildlife habitat and increases water demand in areas where wells are already drying up.

Assembly Bill 68, introduced last week by Assemblyman Chris Ward (D-San Diego), would expedite approvals for new housing in areas close to jobs, schools, parks, transit and other amenities . It would make it faster, cheaper and easier to build housing in safe and environmentally friendly places. To do so, it would require that these homes be approved through an objective, streamlined process that eliminates unnecessary delays.

AB 68 would also ensure that local governments approve such housing within existing communities before they allow development of the open spaces and agricultural lands that make us more climate resilient. Cities and counties that want to add more homes in undeveloped “greenfields” will essentially have to demonstrate that a similar number of homes cannot be built in neighborhoods that already have infrastructure and services. Most cities and counties could accommodate far more climate-safe housing of this type, but severe restrictions on infill construction effectively enforce sprawl, pollution, and disaster.

The counter-mandate of this legislation – don’t sprawl unless you have to – takes a new approach to land use. For most of the past 50 years, California’s strict restrictions and outright bans on dense multi-family housing in existing neighborhoods have made low-density single-family housing and greenfield land the default when we welcome the growth. And while recent legislative reforms have sought to facilitate the development of affordable multi-family housing in cities by reducing zoning, planning and other restrictions, it is still easier in many cases to build in rural areas that are more vulnerable to fires and floods. AB 68 would begin to correct the incentives that too often pit housing need against environmental stewardship by encouraging sprawl.

It is significant that the environmental and housing movements are coming together to address these issues. Historically, we have worked separately or even disagreed. Environmental and conservation organizations, focused on maintaining vital habitats, protecting air and water quality, and preserving open space, sometimes oppose development and growth in general. Meanwhile, housing advocates working to open cities and towns to more housing development may have been less concerned about the dangers of building where we shouldn’t.

Now our problems come together. The housing affordability crisis has become a significant contributor to habitat loss as well as climate pollution, so we are breaking down our silos and working on a common vision. These problems are inseparable from each other and we must tackle them together.

Melissa Breach is the COO of California YIMBY. Liz O’Donoghue is Director of Sustainable and Resilient Communities Strategy for the Nature Conservancy.

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