It seems appropriate to re-examine how we can address climate change, increase affordable housing and improve transportation – and achieve these goals in the most effective way.
My approach is to challenge claims such as “doing this is sustainable” or “we must do that to fight climate change” at face value.
All too often these claims are used to justify political or commercial ends. It can be easy to be taken in by a well-oiled marketing machine that leverages these arguments with sophistication.
It becomes necessary to dig below the superficial to understand the facts regarding car and transit emissions and recognize the realities of providing housing and mobility for those who deserve access to better opportunities.
Fighting Climate Change the Cost Effective Way
Fighting climate change is important, and taxes are a finite resource that we must use cost effectively to achieve this end. So we must not leap on unproven ideas, ideas that are cost ineffective. We must really question the math on how much each dollar will contribute to reducing emissions. If a strategy doesn’t pencil out with an appropriate cost/benefit ratio, we need to seek out more effective means. We must consider that new cars are mandated by Whitehouse and EPA legislation to achieve 54.5mpg by 2025 and are already making unprecedented progress towards this goal. With less fuel burned CO2 emissions drop (CO2 emissions are near directly related to mpg). This increased fuel efficiency means that car emissions are rapidly dropping below transit.
I cover the topic of how cars achieve lower emissions than transit in the Patch article SMART Train Actually Increases Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
Plan Bay Area seeks to reduce car greenhouse gases to 1990 levels with an imposing $92 billion program of building high-density housing near transit such as the SMART train here in Marin. But now that cars are already emitting less per passenger mile than transit, and with the gap widening the Plan is effectively spending taxpayers money to achieve little, nothing, or worse – move the needle the wrong way and actually increase emissions.
Using Affordable Housing to Justify Development, Then Building Luxury Apartments
Developing property is a risky business and making profitable returns relies on maximizing revenues. Commercial, for-profit developers seek to maximize the number of market rate units. Plan Bay Area and associated PDAs and Housing Elements help open up development opportunities and remove obstacles such as CEQA. CEQA is a tool that allows examination of potential negative impact on the community such as increased traffic, parking and pollution. It has become an inconvenience to those who want to push through high-density developments.
Developers ride on the coat tails of housing advocates lobbying for affordable housing – claiming altruism – but as demonstrated by WinCup with just 10% affordable units this justification is quickly forgotten.
Sometimes advocates seem to lose sight of their stated goal of building more affordable housing. For instance 33 North San Pedro Road in San Rafael and the new Win Cup building were justified as providing affordable housing and reducing vehicle usage because they are near transit. But scrutiny reveals that what’s actually built are luxury apartments starting at $2,500/month for a 1 bedroom unit. Developers have pushed and have succeeded to minimize the numbers of affordable units to just 10%. Something tells me that residents able to afford these luxury rents won’t be taking transit.
An Integrated Approach to Equity and Affordable Housing
We should be helping to ensure that those with low incomes have opportunity. This does not mean concentrating housing in the least attractive and least healthy locations near freeways.
Marin already has the right model of truly integrated communities –new developments must set aside upwards of 20% of units for low-income residents. My own neighborhood is a fantastic example of this. You’ll find people from our workforce such as teachers and police along with low-income residents mixed in amongst market rate homes. You can’t tell which is which. The community is integrated.
The Unspoken Threat to Affordable Housing: Gentrification
A more critical threat from this new type of high-density luxury development is that of displacement of low-income minorities. Marin City – a highly desirable location for luxury apartments close to San Francisco - is home to a high concentration of minorities, but it has been designated as a Priority Development Area – marked for “significant growth”. Perhaps in anticipation of such gentrification routine maintenance of the Aaron Green designed 168 unit public housing there has been deferred.
Atlanta’s Creating Loafing reports that of 5,000 families displaced in public housing demolitions only 332 return to live in the new mixed-income communities. Affordable housing advocates may find this article provides a new perspective of what may happen as a result of the Marin City PDA.
Accessing Opportunity Means Mobility
Those with low incomes need mobility to access opportunity. Once again this becomes a matter of cost-effectiveness. We should not be spending $1.6 billion on a 1.1 mpg heavy diesel train that has been made to sound “sustainable”, or worse invest in a nostalgic trolley network. Those with low incomes deserve this money to lower the cost of using bus or ferry transit or increasing the number of routes or the frequency of service. Instead they get elaborate schemes that depend on concentrating housing near freeways.
Just as important is the need for low income workers to have access to cars. Many work two jobs or shifts at off-hours. What could really help would be providing subsidized access to car-sharing services such as ZipCar and ridesharing services such as Lyft.
The Answer: Education and Transparency
The path to the solution is education. We need to frame the facts, understand the statistics and help others to reach their own conclusions instead of depending on marketing spin that might declare a project to be sustainable or a mode of transit to be greener.
This education must be pursued with genuine transparency. As decisions are considered all conflicts of interest are declared. No decision should be behind closed doors, but all aspects should be publicly considered.
Gandhi once said “In true democracy every man and women is taught to think for himself or herself”. Gandi’s words could not be more relevant today – all of us need to question and understand the facts, facts that must be disclosed and not hidden behind one group’s unquestioned assertion of what we should sacrifice in order to be greener or more sustainable.