California faces ‘existential’ dilemma in tackling climate change, housing crisis

Image: Aerial View of Residential Inner City Los Angeles, California, USA
An aerial view of residential inner-city Los Angeles.Sam Lafoca / Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images file


LOS ANGELES — Santa Monica resident Leonora Camner only has to open her windows to escape Southern California’s worsening heat waves.

Where millions of Los Angeles County residents must sit in a car for more than an hour to drive to the beach, Camner can get there in minutes. Coastal access is an equity issue, however, one that she said inspired her to join Abundant Housing LA, a nonprofit organization that advocates for solutions to the region’s affordable housing crisis. She is now the group’s executive director.

“I’m very fortunate to live in a place where we still have a cool breeze,” she said. “So many people work here in Santa Monica, but they are constantly having to leave because of the rising cost and lack of housing.”

As home prices soar and wildfires rage across California, the state is increasingly confronted with the herculean task of addressing climate change while creating more affordable housing. A series of new mandates recently issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom has plunged the state deeper into what some say is an “existential” dilemma generations in the making: how to house the state’s 40 million residents while also protecting its natural resources.

It’s a complicated task in a state where both homelessness and home prices are on the rise as climate change is fueling wildfires and drought.

“It’s such an existential issue for a California facing climate change,” Camner said. “With these extreme fires, I don’t see how we can ever address housing in a way that doesn’t plan for that fact. There is no getting around it.”

Last month, Newsom, a Democrat, signed more than two dozen housing bills aimed at spurring new development and addressing the state’s affordable housing shortage. He also approved a bill that curtails single-family zoning by allowing up to four units on single lots and another that encourages creating more housing density near transit and urban centers.

Combined, 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 home pricing. Across the state, million-dollar houses have become the norm as the pandemic economy pushed an already competitive market into overdrive. While high earners scramble to outbid each other for single-family housing stock, renters are faced with an eviction moratorium that expired at the end of September.

Intertwined with California’s housing shortage is climate change, which has contributed to severe drought, rising sea levels, historic wildfires and unprecedented heat waves. The state has already outlined a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045, a target that advocates say can be achieved in part by creating more housing near jobs and transportation centers and thereby eliminating hourslong commutes.

At the center of the debate in Southern California is a yet-to-be completed tool that could bridge the gap between conservation and development. The SoCal Greenprint will be an interactive mapping platform providing access to more than 100 data sets that highlight natural resources. Inspired by similar projects around the country, the tool will include information on agricultural land, green spaces, habitats and biodiversity and clean water and air.

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

“We feel very strongly that people want to come live in Southern California because of the environment, because of the nature of where we live,” said Kome Ajise, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, a metropolitan planning organization overseeing the development of the Greenprint. “You can go from the ocean to the mountains in a few hours, and there’s some quality to that everybody felt we needed to preserve.”

A sister tool is already being used in other parts of California. The Bay Area Greenprint was unveiled in 2017 and is actively updated with new information for real estate 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 Greenprint.

“It is really, really important at a time when we’re facing so many challenges and opportunities that we have the data available so that people can make the decisions they want to make,” she said.

“Knowing where there are communities that don’t have a park close by … is really important to build knowledge and solve a number of the things we’re trying to solve,” O’Donoghue, who served as project lead on the Bay Area Greenprint, added.

Image: Wildfires are choking California's skies with smoke, littering cities with ash, creating dangerous levels in regional air quality and transforming the sun at times into an ominous red orb.
Visitors check their photos taken at Griffith Observatory with a smoky andsmoggy view of the Hollywood sign in the background in Los Angeles on Sept. 14, 2020.Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

But in Southern California, where single-family zoning has long reigned supreme, the SoCal Greenprint has turned into a flashpoint. Last week, a public hearing on the future of the project devolved into a four-hour heated debate between those who want to see its immediate completion and opponents who worry it could stymie efforts to build more housing and transportation. Some went as far as to call the tool’s implementation modern-day “redlining,” while others said it would be a “betrayal” to further delay the project.

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

Chris Wilson, public policy manager for the Los Angeles County Business Federation, said the tool could have “unintended consequences” and affect some 4,000 transportation projects in the L.A region alone, including pausing construction because of environmental concerns revealed through the Greenprint.

Wilson and his partners in the business community also worry about the potential for litigation as a result of the California Environmental Quality Act, a state law that requires local governments and public agencies to address the environmental impacts of major projects and land use decisions. Since being signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970, CEQA, as it’s colloquially known, has become “the environmental law developers love to hate.”

“When you understand the SoCal Greenprint, yes it is about housing, but there is also a spillover to the transportation and goods movement sector,” Wilson said. “These are things we want to make sure SCAG is aware of so there are no unintended consequences.”

Culver City Mayor Alex Fisch said he was “shocked” by the contentious public hearing last week and called the Greenprint a “tremendously helpful tool.” But he also sees it as a symbol of the inherent tension between conservation and development.

“The concern that people have is that when you look honestly at the environmental impact of building on the urban fringe, it’s terrible,” he said. “It is just a map, but it’s a proxy for so much more.”

Related New in Energy & EnviornmentHousing, Land Use, & Development