California faces an “existential” dilemma in tackling climate change and the housing crisis

LOS ANGELES – Santa Monica-based Leonora Camner just needs to open her windows to escape the worsening heat waves in Southern California.

Where millions of Los Angeles County residents take more than an hour to drive to the beach, Camner can be there in minutes. However, coastal access is a justice issue that she said inspired her to join Abundant Housing LA, a nonprofit advocating solutions to the affordable housing crisis in the area. Today she is the managing director of the group.

“I am very fortunate to live in a place that still has a cool breeze,” she said. “So many people work here in Santa Monica, but they have to keep walking because of rising costs and the lack of housing.”

As home prices skyrocket and wildfires rage across California, the state is increasingly faced with the Herculean task of tackling climate change while creating more affordable housing. A series of new mandates recently enacted by Governor Gavin Newsom has plunged the state deeper into an “existential” dilemma that generations will have in the making: how to shelter the state’s 40 million people while protecting its natural resources.

It’s a complicated task in a state where both homelessness and house prices are rising as climate change fuels wildfires and droughts.

“For a California facing climate change, that’s an existential problem,” said Camner. “With these extreme fires, I don’t see how we can ever approach housing construction in a way that doesn’t allow for that fact. There’s no way around it.”

Alisal Fire burns near Goleta in Santa Barbara County, California on October 13, 2021.Aude Guerrucci / Reuters

Last month, Newsom, a Democrat, signed more than two dozen housing laws designed to spur new developments and address the lack of affordable housing in the state. He also approved a bill that restricts single-family housing development by allowing up to four units on individual lots, and another that encourages the creation of higher density living near transport and city centers.

Taken together, the bills usher in a new era of growth for California at a time when millions of people struggle to afford rising rents and exclusive house prices. Million dollar homes have become the norm across the state as the pandemic economy kicked an already competitive market into high gear. While high earners outbid each other in the single-family house stock, the tenants are threatened with an eviction moratorium that expired at the end of September.

Linked to California’s housing shortage is climate change, which has contributed to severe drought, rising sea levels, historic forest fires, and unprecedented heat waves. The state has already formulated the goal of becoming climate neutral by 2045, a goal that, according to proponents, can in part be achieved by creating more living space near workplaces and traffic centers, thereby eliminating the need to commute for hours.

At the heart of the debate in Southern California is an unfinished tool that could bridge the gap between conservation and development. The SoCal Greenprint will be an interactive mapping platform that provides access to more than 100 datasets highlighting natural resources. Inspired by similar projects across the country, the tool will include information on agricultural land, green spaces, habitats and biodiversity, as well as clean water and air.

The tool would be free to all users and would not constitute a binding policy or regulation.

“We strongly believe that the people of Southern California want to live because of the environment and the nature of where we live,” said Kome Ajise, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, an urban planning organization that oversees the development of the green print. “You can go from the sea to the mountains in a few hours, and there is a certain quality that everyone, in my opinion, needs to maintain.”

A sister tool is already in use in other parts of California. The Bay Area Greenprint was launched in 2017 and is actively updated with new information for property developers, city agencies and community organizations. It took less than two years to build, according to Liz O’Donoghue, director of sustainable development strategy for the California program at The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization that partnered with stakeholders to create the green print.

“At a time when we are faced with so many challenges and opportunities, it is really very important that we have the data so that people can make the decisions they want to make,” she said.

“Knowing where there are communities that don’t have a park nearby … is really important in building knowledge and solving a number of the things we’re trying to solve,” said O’Donoghue, the Bay Area project leader Green footprint was active, added.

Visitors review their photos, taken at the Griffith Observatory, with a smoky / smoggy view of the Hollywood sign in the background in Los Angeles on September 14, 2020.Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

But in Southern California, where single-family zoning has long prevailed, the SoCal greenprint has become a hot spot. Last week, a public hearing on the future of the project turned into a four-hour heated debate between those who want to see its immediate completion and those who fear it could undo efforts to build more housing and transportation. Some even went so far as to call the implementation of the tool modern “redlining”, while others said it would be “betrayal” to delay the project further.

Ultimately, members of the Southern California Association of Governments voted to suspend SoCal Greenprint development for future study and review.

Chris Wilson, public policy manager for the Los Angeles County Business Federation, said the tool could have “unintended consequences” affecting around 4,000 transportation projects in the LA area alone, including the disruption of construction due to environmental concerns revealed by the green print.

Wilson and his business partners are also concerned about the possibility of litigation under the California Environmental Quality Act, a state law that requires local governments and public agencies to address the environmental impact of major projects and land use decisions. Since it was signed by the government at the time. Ronald Reagan in 1970 became CEQA, as it is colloquially known, to “the environmental lawmakers who love to hate them.”

“If you understand the SoCal greenprint, it’s about housing, but there’s also a spill over into the transportation and freight sectors,” said Wilson. “We want to make sure that SCAG is aware of these things so that there are no unintended consequences.”

Culver City Mayor Alex Fisch said he was “shocked” by the controversial public hearing last week and called the greenprint an “enormously helpful tool”. But he also sees it as a symbol of the inherent tension between maintenance and development.

“People’s concern is that if you honestly look at the environmental impact of building on the outskirts, it is terrible,” he said. “It’s just a card, but it’s a proxy for so much more.”

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