Democrats’ Housing Policies Worsen Climate Change

by on June 12, 2019

Key Democrats Prioritize Luxury Homeowners Over a Sustainable Future

Since California’s Governor Newsom allowed Senate leader Toni Atkins to kill SB50, the state’s leading housing production bill (See “Democratic Leaders Fail California,”  May 19), media criticism of the action has intensified. Anger over SB50’s shelving has been fueled by a 16% rise in Los Angeles’ homeless count and a new statewide poll showing over 60% support—nearly 75% among Democrats—for increasing housing density on transit corridors.

As I chronicle in Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, the failure to build sufficient housing for decades has worsened economic inequality and reduced racial diversity in over a dozen of our “blue” cities. The housing policies of local Democratic politicians are also worsening climate change.

It’s now clear that California’s Democratic leadership paid lip service to the need to build more housing. It utterly failed to pass essential housing production and tenant protection legislation.  Sadly, the same “don’t walk the talk” strategy is occurring on climate change. Politicians seek enviro credibility by passing “Green New Deals” while preserving the single family exclusionary zoning that demands long car commutes.

“Missing Middle” Housing

Last week, Michael Anderson of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute released a report that puts the housing-climate change connection in even better perspective.  Anderson found that 2-4 unit buildings—so-called “missing middle” housing—reduces housing related carbon emissions by 20% over single-family homes.

That’s a big deal. You would think that pro-enviro Democrats would have rushed to re-legalize missing middle housing.  But Atkins and fellow Democrats did nothing of the sort. In shelving SB50, they did not even allow its provision legalizing  fourplexes statewide to come to a vote.

Governor Newsom, who vowed to get 3, 500,000 new homes in the state but then allowed Atkins to undermine this goal, has also repeatedly claimed that battling climate change is a top priority. Yet Newsom did not publicly demand that Atkins at least allow a vote on legalizing fourplexes.

The reason for the hypocrisy is clear: key Democrats are politically aligned with boomer luxury homeowners opposed to infill housing. That means keeping land use policies allowing energy inefficient monster homes but barring fourplexes; the climate change impacts be damned.

Rezoning for “Affordable Housing”

In San Francisco, Mayor Breed has a charter amendment for the November ballot to make affordable and teacher housing “as of right. ” It has put progressives loyal to luxury homeowners in a quandary.

They can’t oppose anything that promotes “affordable housing,” because support for such units is central to their “progressive” identity. Yet they approve new office developments for workers who do not qualify for “affordable” developments without changing neighborhood zoning to house this workforce.

Ask any supervisor who opposes allowing apartments on the city’s Westside and in other single-family zoned neighborhoods about their plans are to house this new generation of the city’s middle-class workforce. When I have raised such questions in prior stories, I have gotten no response.

For four decades San Francisco politicians have been content to export the housing demands of their new employees to the East Bay and South Bay and beyond. No wonder 120,000 are commuting each day from Sacramento the Bay Area; that’s how Bay Area voters and politicians keep their own neighborhoods free of new apartments.

And worsen the air quality of the entire Bay Area.

I wrote in January that housing policy was “disrupting” progressive politics by exposing “progressive” politicians for maintaining elitist and exclusionary zoning policies. Such policies are also directly at odds with a Green New Deal.

Elizabeth Warren’s ambitious housing agenda could unify the diverse strains of urban housing groups, as it backs increased housing for low-income, working and middle-class groups while also calling for zoning reform. But her plan’s implementation is a national election and at best a few years away; in the meantime, social and environmental justice requires that cities and states act immediately to expand infill housing.

Enviros in Seattle and Portland have won broader support for infill housing by making housing a climate change issue. Activists must do the same in all blue cities.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America,

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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