San Francisco Chronicle
Housing bill pairs unlikely partners
Measure combats sprawl in fire-, flood-prone suburbs
Much of the housing built in the state since the 1970s has been in sprawling subdivisions on the far outskirts of metro areas. While expedient, this development pattern has put thousands more Californians in the pathway of deadly wildfires and floods.
That problem at the intersection of two existential crises has long bedeviled legislators: How can the state confront its worsening housing shortage while also discouraging construction in wildland areas that are being pummeled by disasters made increasingly common and severe by a changing climate?
An unlikely coalition of housing advocates and environmentalists has joined forces in an attempt to take on that third rail of California politics with legislation they unveiled Thursday.
The proposal, sponsored by California YIMBY and The Nature Conservancy, would make it much harder to build subdivisions in areas prone to fires or flooding. At the same time, the bill would require cities to make it much easier and cheaper for developers to build housing in urban areas.
Supporters said the goal is to promote housing development in existing communities — where residents often have a better quality of life because they can live close to where they work and utilize existing public amenities like mass transit, schools and parks — rather than construction in outlying areas where residents usually have to drive more and taxpayers must spend heavily to build infrastructure and amenities.
State Assembly Member Chris Ward,
who is carrying the bill, said California has enabled an unhealthy pattern of exurban growth for the past 50 years by making it overly complicated to build within existing communities while allowing cities and towns to annex land and permit unchecked development in grassy foothills or along seasonal floodplains.
“That has come to roost in the form of thousands of homes burning down,” said Ward, a Democrat from San Diego and a former environmental planner. “Mother Nature doesn’t know about our political boundaries.”
More than 1 in 4 Californians, or more than 11 million people, lives in a high fire-risk zone, known as the wildland-urban interface, according to researchers at the UC Berkeley Center for Community Innovation and the nonprofit think tank Next10. One in 5 residents lives in an area vulnerable to flooding, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Ward’s bill, Assembly Bill 68, has a major set of teeth: provisions that would limit development in areas that are considered extremely high risk for wildfire and floods.
The full text of Ward’s bill hasn’t been published yet. But he said it would prohibit cities, towns and unincorporated counties from upzoning land or streamlining approval to allow denser development in dangerous wildland areas unless the local government can prove that it’s unable to construct the same amount of housing in an existing urbanized area, out of harm’s way. The details of how a local government could meet that test under the bill are still being drafted.
In practice, that could put the brakes on much of the state’s exurban development for cities and towns and make it “very rare or close to impossible” for unincorporated county areas, Ward said.
That provision is likely to stir strong opposition from some builders, unions representing construction workers and business groups. There have been past legislative attempts to ban or limit construction in wildfire-prone areas, but those efforts have fizzled in Sacramento amid protests from the building industry.
Melissa Breach, chief operating officer for California YIMBY, helped craft AB68, which she said is unlike past failed measures because it couples limits on development in wildland areas with provisions to speed up construction within existing communities.
“We want to put that housing where it makes the most sense,” she said.
The bill is new territory for California YIMBY, one of the state’s most aggressive prohousing groups that is often aligned with the building industry on legislation. But Breach said the effort to limit development in wild areas is in lockstep with the organization’s mission, which she said has always been focused on building homes in urban areas, where construction has a smaller environmental footprint and people tend to use less water and drive less.
“YIMBY is ‘Yes in My Backyard,’ ” she said. “There are a lot of parts of the state where there are no backyards, pristine parts. YIMBYs are environmentalists.”
The other major provisions of the bill would require cities and towns to expedite approval of multi-family housing projects on “climate smart” lots, such as areas within one-half mile from transit or within a mile walk of parks, grocery stores and small businesses.
Such fast-tracked development happens through a process known as ministerial approval, which removes city officials’ discretion to arbitrarily reject denser housing or neighbors’ ability to challenge it at a hearing or through lawsuits filed under the guise of California’s stringent environmental law known as CEQA. AB68 would build on recent state laws that have expanded the number of projects that can use the faster approval route.
More than a decade ago, California legislators passed a bill that tried to nudge cities to allow denser and more infill development by requiring them to plan for housing in transitfriendly areas.
But cities have largely ignored those plans they created. AB68 aims to change that by requiring local governments to also streamline approval for housing projects that would be allowed under the planning documents that cities have drafted and stuck on the shelf.
Moreover, supporters of AB68 said wildlife habitat land has two other key public benefits: preserving land helps to mitigate planet-warming emissions because such land functions as “carbon sinks”; and the land can serve as a buffer between nearby communities and fires and flood runoff.
The partnership between California YIMBY and The Nature Conservancy, one of the country’s largest environmental groups, signals an important shift underway in the nexus between housing and environmental policy. In the past, environmentalists and housing advocates were often opponents, particularly as older generations of environmental advocates sought to discourage growth.
Elizabeth O’Donoghue, director of sustainable and resilient communities strategy at The Nature Conservancy, said the growing alliance between the two movements is a natural evolution as activists see how decades of sprawling development has contributed to climate change and put people in the path of the dangerous weather events it fuels.
“They’re both systemic issues, but they’re connected,” O’Donoghue said. “We need to solve these together.”