Greenhouse fixation: Can infill development halt California’s affordable housing crisis and climate change?

Only 19 percent of new or renovated units in Sacramento County are explicitly affordable

Volunteers from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Democratic Socialists of America host a strategy session on affordable housing, which has an indirect tie to the state’s climate change goals.

Volunteers from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Democratic Socialists of America host a strategy session on affordable housing, which has an indirect tie to the state’s climate change goals.

Photo by Michael Mott

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.
This is an extended version of a story that ran in the April 20, 2017, issue.

Consuela Lawson, a heavy-equipment operator in her mid-40s, knows she could be next to leave Sacramento after spiraling rent prices pushed relatives out of the city.

But she’s not thinking about the environmental toll.

A few weeks ago, the single mother learned her home is being sold to a corporation. Lawson says her previous, longtime landlord never raised her rent. Her two nieces were priced out a few months ago, though. Standing on her doorstep while her daughter watched television inside, Lawson tried to remain optimistic.

“God is good. Whatever he has in store for me will get worked out in the wash,” she said. “I’m just worried about other people. For so many families on a fixed income, they don’t have more to spend on rent. It’s American greed.”

Lawson was one of several people reached on a rainy Saturday in April by members of the nonprofit Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE. They were knocking on doors in South Sacramento to inform residents about a new, free legal clinic for tenants, as well as a campaign to bring rent control to the city. ACCE organizers say they’re trying to prevent corporate landlords from displacing tenants like Lawson and create more opportunities for affordable housing.

But that mission also has a side benefit, according to emerging UC Berkeley research: sparing the climate.

The March report, “Right Type, Right Place,” comes from two analysts affiliated with UC Berkeley. Funded by the San Francisco think tank Next 10, the report is the first academic analysis to show how adding housing for the average men, women and children of California could help the state meet its ambitious greenhouse-gas-reduction targets for 2030.

“Housing production and greenhouse-gas reduction—these things can go together,” said Nathaniel Decker, a researcher and graduate student from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation and one of the report’s authors. “You can have a strategy to deal with the affordable-housing crisis while doing something about the environment.”

Environmentalism and affordable housing don’t always go hand in hand. Environmental groups protested Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to spend $400 million to subsidize affordable housing because it streamlined local environmental-review processes, which can take years and thousands of dollars to complete. Given lower state revenues and uncertainty around federal dollars, Brown axed the plan in this year’s budget.

The timing, as always, is imperfect: The state Legislature is considering numerous affordable-housing bills. Whether any will muscle their way into law is unclear. In the meantime, the Trump administration has proposed a massive spending cut to its housing agency, one that would ripple into states around the nation, including this one.

In Sacramento, efforts to keep pace with affordable-housing needs have faltered over funding woes and political concessions, increasing the county’s homeless population.

There’s always been a human need for homes that everyday people can afford. Now that there’s an environmental one, too, will they actually get built?

Homeownership in California is at its lowest rate since the 1940s, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development. The state’s highest-in-the-nation home prices are trending up, too. According to Zillow housing data, the median home value is $490,100, up 6.9 percent over the last year, and is projected to rise 1.5 percent by the end of this year.

It’s all getting too much for Tari Matthews, Lawson’s sister-in-law and a Sears manager who makes $16 an hour. Matthews says she’s considering moving to Louisiana, where gas and rent are cheaper. In Sacramento, her rent rose from $750 to $1,025 over two months, she says. To help cover that, her daughter has delayed college to work instead.

“I’ve never been rich, but never been flat broke either after paying the rent,” Matthews told SN&R. “Now my rent is a whole paycheck, to the dollar.”

The UC Berkeley report has suggestions on how to help people like Matthews, as well as the environment. It notes that sprawl-inducing land use policies at the local level fostered development on the fringes of cities instead of at their cores, creating more air pollution, larger lots and less open space and farmland.

Infill development, which refers to housing in walkable neighborhoods or within three miles of rapid transit, made up 60 percent of the state housing supply over the last 16 years, according to the report. That trend is going up, with more infill being built since the recession. Researchers say that 100 percent of new development should be infill, creating denser, healthier and more prosperous communities.

Under the Berkeley study’s target scenario, by encouraging only infill housing, California could prevent 1.79 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere annually. That figure equates to 378,108 fewer vehicles on the road a year. Nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gases come from transportation, the report says.

Families would also save on utility costs with smaller homes, and from driving less.

Regarding the latter, Veronica Beaty says that expanded infill development would convince lower-income residents to part with older, higher-polluting vehicles, creating an additional health benefit.

“Dense transportation frees up a lot of disposable income, whether that’s walking to work or not having to pay car maintenance,” said Beaty, the land use policy director for Sacramento Housing Alliance, a coalition for affordable housing.

Overall, the Sacramento region isn’t that dense. On average, just 2.6 units occupy an acre in established residential communities across the five-county region. In San Francisco, there are 12 units per established community acre.

While the Berkeley report says affordable housing must be a goal of policy makers, it doesn’t lay out how to get there.

And local Sacramento politicians aren’t doing it on their own. Three years ago, both city and county leaders replaced landmark housing ordinances that required developers to build a certain percentage of affordable housing within every residential development with a fee that goes into a trust fund.

Advocates like Beaty say the fee that developers are asked to pay is too low. Mayor Darrell Steinberg has suggested subsidizing it with taxpayer money because the city’s fund has not collected enough money to build affordable housing.

The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency is the main local conduit for affordable-housing funds, but has less money to spread around. More than half of the state and federal funding for housing production and preservation evaporated during the recession. That has created a situation in which the county needs nearly 60,000 rental homes to meet the needs of its lowest-income residents, according to a report presented Tuesday to the Sacramento City Council. The average monthly rent also rose, from about $800 in 2004 to nearly $1,200 last year.

The city’s Downtown Housing Initiative aims to add 10,000 homes to downtown by 2025. Oriented around transit, a quarter would be deemed affordable. Of the 1,289 units that have been built since January 2015, 169 were affordable.

Meanwhile, the state’s climate goals loom. California must reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and double that margin by 2050.

A Sacramento neighborhood high in pollution and low on affordable housing tells the tale.

Oak Park is cornered by highways 50 and 99, and bordered by Stockton Boulevard, heavily trafficked thoroughfares on which hundreds of thousands of cars pass daily. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, some of the worst pollution in the state is here, equating to high asthma rates, low birth weights and heavy concentrations of ozone and vehicle emissions.

The neighborhood has also seen extraordinary development.

On the office window of the Oak Park real estate agency grounded., homes were advertised for between $239,000 and $879,000.

The Berkeley report considers a neighborhood like Oak Park a prime candidate for infill development, being located within three miles of a light-rail station. However, for the report’s target scenario, not only would developers need to build 1.9 million units around the state, tens of thousands of existing units would need to be demolished and redeveloped, too. That could actually decrease the amount of available affordable housing in the short term, as residents are displaced from moderately priced units that need to be upgraded.

Summing up their findings on affordable housing, the researchers say more redevelopment funding is needed and recommend that political bodies adopt policies that protect tenants from being displaced and streamline regulations that hamper the development of affordable housing.

By shifting the focus away from freeway-dependent sprawl and instead focusing on residential centers interspersed with transit, employment and shopping resources, the researchers say that California’s climate goals become more realistic. Next 10 founder Noel Perry said he wasn’t sure whether the report’s recommendations would be adopted by policy makers.

For the working-class people who could benefit the most, the health of the environment isn’t necessarily the most pressing thing on their minds.

Rudolfo Vargas is ACCE’s field organizer. He speaks with residents daily about the issues they face, from Oak Park to Del Paso Heights and other low-income Sacramento neighborhoods. While pollution is one of the concerns, most conversations revolve around rising rents, neighborhood trash, gangs and maintenance issues under corporate landlords.

“One resident pays $70 a month to fumigate cockroaches,” Vargas said. “Congestion, traffic, smog—these are definitely problems. But they aren’t the first thing they talk about.”

Matthews, who is considering relocating to Louisiana, agreed.

“Those are low priorities comparing to wondering if I should move out of state, and whether my daughter would survive on ramen noodles,” Matthews said.