California’s housing shortage and climate crisis are often treated as unrelated. In fact, they are deeply interconnected.
We need to address not only how many homes we build, but also where we build them. That’s the thinking and the promise behind new legislation backed by a fresh coalition of housing and environmental advocates.
California must add at least 2.5 million new homes by 2030 to meet their needs. Decades of underproduction have exacerbated skyrocketing 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 due in large part to local government policies that prevent new housing from being built in existing neighborhoods, forcing most development to rural and extra-urban areas.
Without enough affordable housing close to jobs, schools, transit, and other resources in existing communities, Californians are increasingly forced to make long commutes from remote areas that are often more vulnerable to forest fires, flood and other weather-accelerated disasters. Between 1990 and 2010, half of the urbanization in California it was on the edge of wilderness areas, known as the “wildland-urban interface,” or WUI. As a result, about 25% of Californians live in areas at high risk for catastrophic wildfires.
Expanding development onto 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 cause most forest fires. And development often paves over floodplains that might otherwise absorb rain and runoff, causing flooding. more common and destructive.
California has lost more than 1 million acres of natural habitat to development in the last 20 years. Forests, wetlands, coastal areas, grasslands, and rivers provide clean air, fresh water, and access to green space for all of us. Moving homes to more remote regions fragments wildlife, reduces community resilience, and exacerbates global biodiversity and climate crises, which affect all Californians.
We need to rethink the way we think about the relationship between housing policy and climate change. We need to significantly increase the amount of housing we build, but if we build it in the undeveloped urban-wildland interface, we will only make the climate crisis worse. Building homes far 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 paving over natural and agricultural land that would otherwise remove it from the atmosphere. And it destroys or degrades wildlife habitat and increases demand for water in areas where wells are already running dry.
Assembly Bill 68, introduced last week by Assemblyman Chris Ward (D-San Diego), would expedite approval of new housing in areas close to jobs, schools, parks, transit and other amenities. It would make it faster, cheaper and easier to build homes in safe and environmentally smart places. It would do so by demanding that said homes be approved through an objective, simplified process It eliminates unnecessary delays.
AB 68 would also ensure that local governments approve such housing within existing communities before allowing development of open space and farmland to make us more climate resilient. Cities and counties that want to add more housing in undeveloped “new fields” will essentially have to show that a similar amount of housing cannot be built in neighborhoods that already have infrastructure and services. Most cities and counties could accommodate much more climate-safe housing, but the severe restrictions on infill construction effectively call for sprawl, pollution, and disaster.
The countermandate of this legislation, do not expand unless necessary, takes a novel approach to land use. For most of the last 50 years, California’s strict restrictions and outright bans on dense multi-family housing in existing neighborhoods have made low-density single-family housing the default when we adapt to growth. And while recent legislative reforms have sought to make it easier to develop affordable multi-family housing in cities by reducing zoning, planning and other restrictions, in many cases it is still easier to build in rural areas that are more vulnerable to fire and flooding. AB 68 would begin to correct the incentives that too often pit the need for housing against environmental stewardship by encouraging sprawl.
It is significant that the housing and environmental movements are coming together to address these issues. Historically we have worked separately or even been at odds. 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 further housing development may have been less concerned about the dangers of building where we shouldn’t.
Now our problems are colliding. The housing affordability crisis has become a significant contributor to habitat loss and climate pollution, so we are breaking down our silos and working towards a shared vision. These problems are inextricable from each other and we must tackle them together.
Melissa Breach is the Director of Operations for the California YIMBY. Liz O’Donoghue is director of sustainable and resilient communities strategy at the Nature Conservancy.