By Loren Kaye, President of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education.
If the question is housing affordability or greenhouse gas reductions, livable cities or infrastructure investment, then the answer often involves “infill housing.”
Dense housing in communities with existing infrastructure is the holy grail for planners, environmentalists and many elected officials.
“Encouraging new housing development in infill areas would spur economic growth, reduce monthly household costs, and cut greenhouse gas emissions, keeping the state on track to achieving its climate goals.” – Next 10
“We identified physical capacity to add more than five million units in (California) “housing hot spots.” – McKinsey Global Institute
Environmental advocates and regulators have also seized infill development as a near-panacea for reducing carbon emissions from vehicle travel. According to the Air Resources Board, “California must reduce vehicle miles of travel (VMT) – alongside improvements in vehicle and fuel technology – in order to meet our ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals for the transportation sector.”
The advisability of regulating VMT to reduce greenhouse gases is debatable, since gasoline and diesel emissions are covered in the state’s cap-and-trade program. But more intensive development in existing urban and suburban areas has many other benefits.
The case for infill is strong, but it’s just an abstraction until local officials actually approve an infill project. For all the sweet logic of an intensive infill policy, and for all the policy tools mustered to meet these goals, even the most sensible and sympathetic projects must run the permit gauntlet and meet approval by local councils, commissions and boards.
This is where the rubber meets the road – and then skids off into the ditch.
Infill dreams will never be fully realized until policy makers come to grips with the immovable object of local housing policy: neighborhood objections backed by the CEQA cudgel.
Redwood City is in the heart of the Bay Area, home to Oracle and Electronic Arts, located in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by three-to-one. To their credit the city council is trying not only to encourage infill housing, but affordable housing at that.
But … not so fast.
The Redwood City Planning Commission recently approved a 20-unit condominium, nearby CalTrain, for 100 percent affordable family ownership(that is, 60 to 80 percent of the area median income). In the Bay Area that means homes for first responders, preschool teachers and restaurant managers. The condo is being developed by Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco.
Rather than celebrating a win in the nation’s most expensive housing market, some out-of-town lawyers who own nearby offices are in revolt.
They cried crocodile tears for the kids who would live there – claiming the back yards are too small and the condo too far from parks. Apparently the kids would be better off with their parents driving in from Lodi.
More in sorrow than in anger, these attorneys opposed the project while ensuring their bona fides were well known. “I’m sorry to rise up against Habitat,” said one. “I love these people; I fear for them in the era of Trump.”
Not to be outdone, another attorney-neighbor declared, “I defend the indigent. These are my peeps!” But … sorry, peeps, the same neighbor threatened litigation at the hearing and the following week filed an appeal with the City Council, intending that none of those peeps share his fenceline. Only in the bizarro world of Bay Area progressive NIMBYs would affordable condo owners be labeled “indigent.”
This anecdote is illustrative of a much larger problem, fully explicated in this must-read report by Holland and Knight.
The authors found that in the SCAG region (Southern California minus San Diego County) in 2013 through 2015, one-third of all CEQA lawsuits were aimed at stopping residential housing development. Of the housing units targeted by CEQA lawsuits, 99 percent were infill proposals within existing cities or county communities. The vast majority of these were multifamily or mixed use units.
The CEQA lawsuits targeted more than 13,800 infill units in Southern California during this three-year period.
Keep this trend in mind as public officials continue their quest for more infill development and reduced VMT. Just this week a Senate Committee is considering legislation to require planners to design regional housing and transportation strategies to achieve a 15 percent reduction in automobile travel by 2050. This would require a region to reduce travel to 1999 levels, even as population and economic activities continue to grow.
Whether you agree that reducing vehicle trips is necessary to achieve California’s carbon reduction goals, the unavoidable policy implication is more intensive urban residential development. But until policy makers address head-on the ease with which anyone can bring an infill project to a halt, those land use goals will remain a pipe dream.