By Jared Huffman and Ethan Elkind, San Francisco Chronicle
The real estate collapse has masked the existence of a severe housing shortage in California. While developers have oversupplied single-family detached homes with backyards, buyers looking for a home within walking distance of jobs, services, good schools, parks and public transit have few options in this state. Communities that have these “sustainable development” characteristics, such as neighborhoods in San Francisco, Pasadena and San Diego, are often among the most expensive in the state. They are also few and far between compared with the vast stretches of suburban homes covering the state.
So why is suburban sprawl the norm instead of housing close to shops, cafes and transit? The primary roadblock to this development is local land-use policies.
Yet market trends indicate that demand is increasing for walkable communities, particularly for retirees, couples without children, adult singles and other families who are not interested in the suburban lifestyle.
For the first time in the nation’s history, the 2003 sales price per square foot for attached housing (the condominiums and townhouses that are central to sustainable development) was higher than the square-foot price of the detached housing that makes up suburban life. For a new generation of families, the pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of parks, markets and urban amenities represent a more vibrant and exciting place to live than the suburbs of their parents’ generation.
In addition to being in demand, sustainable development represents a critical means of combating climate change. Auto pollution represents the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and our auto-dependent development patterns are the direct cause. The Urban Land Institute’s 2007 book, “Growing Cooler,” concludes that even with future improvements in fuel efficiency, we will need to remove the roadblocks to sustainable development in order to fight climate change. And more compact, walkable neighborhoods create additional environmental benefits, such as preserving open space and agricultural land and reducing the air pollution that causes smog.
Local governments tend to restrict the type of housing, retail and jobs mixes that are central to sustainable development. Even with major transit stops in place, local restrictions stymie growth out of fear of increased traffic and a desire to preserve the “character of the neighborhood.” But the reality is that these developments, when done right, often decrease traffic by allowing residents the option of walking more, and they typically become desirable places that boost nearby property values.
What can be done to make walkable communities commonplace? At a recent workshop with some of the state’s leading sustainable developers and UCLA and Berkeley Law scholars, participants cited three key solutions:
— First, local governments need to develop comprehensive plans for walkable communities instead of undergoing project-by-project approvals that encourage haphazard and disconnected development.
— Second, state and federal governments should direct funds to support the infrastructure needs of areas ripe for sustainable development.
— Third, the state should allow local redevelopment agencies to raise revenue through “tax increment financing,” which taxes the increase in property values associated with new neighborhood development. The revenue will fund the public investments necessary to build more walkable neighborhoods.
These policies have widespread support: A recent Public Policy Institute of California statewide survey that found that 78 percent of Californians support encouraging local governments to change land use and transportation planning so that people can drive less.
Ultimately, California’s citizens will need to ask their elected leaders to allow and plan for sustainable development. It will benefit their communities and quality of life and will ensure that our state is doing its part to reduce the threat from climate change. The downturn in housing now provides us with an opportunity to plan for a new round of growth, building communities that residents want and forging a sustainable path for future generations.
Assembly member Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, is chair of the Legislative Environmental Caucus. Ethan Elkind is the Bank of America Climate Change Research Fellow at the UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law and author of the report “Removing the Roadblocks: How to Make Sustainable Development Happen Now.” Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.