California is facing an extreme affordability crisis that is driven by the interrelated housing shortage, economic inequity, and climate crises. We are not building enough housing at any income level. When we don’t create enough homes, prices go up and working-class and low-income families are forced to live far away from where they work or grew up. This continued upward pressure on the cost of housing means that Bay Area residents are having a harder time finding safe housing and purchasing even a modest home.
California is short over 3.5 million homes, according to
, which forces more workers to become super commuters—people who have to drive more than 90 minutes to get to work. The lack of affordable housing close to jobs also increases pressure for sprawl development closer to the fringes where urban infrastructure intermingles with
. That is exactly where wildlife risk is more pronounced, yet this land is being rapidly developed in the Bay Area.
Housing Policy and Climate Mitigation
In California, about 40% of (GHGs) come from transportation, the bulk of that from gasoline and diesel-burning vehicles. The carbon footprint of our auto-centric urban planning is even greater when we count oil refining and upstream emissions outside the state. Denser forms of development reduce the dependence on personal vehicles, reducing travel time and costs, the consumption of oil and gasoline, and the planet-warming
Even as California has made great progress in cleaning up its electricity grid, transportation emissions were on an upward trend prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some counties, as much as two-thirds of emissions are from automobiles. Building more
in the right places can mitigate climate impacts and reduce housing costs and inequities. But in order to do this, we need to change the way we build and eliminate the stigma around multi-family homes. As we encourage and engage in equitable, fire and flood-safe infill development it is imperative that we think about how we can maximize the benefits we get from our land. We need to build more infill housing in existing urban areas and ensure that all housing includes a healthy amount of green infrastructure like bioswales, carbon sequestering trees that provide shade and help regulate microclimates and mitigate the urban heat island effect, native plants that can provide habitat, and other nature-based solutions to climate risks.
Critical Actions to Take Now
High-level solutions that address the climate challenge outlined.
Increase density within existing communities in non-Fire Hazard Severity Zones and away from flood zones. By building more homes in already established urban areas, we avoid paving over trees and habitats that serve as heat sinks and carbon banks, all of which provide high-value climate benefits. It is critical to support growth in safe infill locations and streamline the permitting process when appropriate, while still allowing for a public process, requiring environmental review, and rewarding jurisdictions that meet housing goals.
Ensure fair and inclusive zoning policies that make housing accessible to everyone. This can be done by permitting more growth in high-resource communities and reducing or eliminating single-family zoning and other exclusionary zoning in areas that are not prone to fire and flood risk. It is critical to ensure wealthy communities are zoned for and build their fair share of both market-rate and affordable housing by not locating affordable housing exclusively in low-income neighborhoods. Throughout these zoning changes and all processes, it is critical to prioritize people of low income and communities of color in housing policies and outreach.
Prepare communities for climate impacts and require nature-based solutions for climate resilience in future developments. Local jurisdictions must be better equipped to help communities struck by natural disasters rebuild and respond rapidly and inclusively. Housing should be built in a manner that protects current and future communities. Integrating green infrastructure into new development and redevelopment is a necessary investment in climate resilience and public health that will reduce energy consumption and the costs of extreme heat and flooding to cities and health care systems. Cities should require developers to integrate green infrastructure into development and the public right-of-way adjacent to developments at a level that exceeds water quality mandates. It is critical to implement improvements to move or protect critical public assets threatened by sea level rise or rising groundwater as well as require and incentivize green infrastructure in future developments and, when possible, use green infrastructure as a preferred alternative. When applicable, it is also beneficial to consider permit for new housing that exceeds current green infrastructure requirements.
Enable community involvement in decision-making around climate-resilient development. This can be done by offering compensation for meeting attendance, providing transportation and childcare to public meetings, and giving residents and community-based organizations ample time to provide feedback on proposals and documents. By embracing these best practices in planning processes, infill development has the opportunity to rejuvenate parts of the city that currently contribute negatively to GHG emissions and urban heat islands and pose fire and flood risk without leading to further displacement.