Full disclosure: The author (Nathan Chan) has already canvassed for Shelly Masur.
On Wednesday, January 15, the leading candidates to replace Senator Jerry Hill of California’s 13th Senate District came together to debate climate change. The event was remarkable, both in terms of its attendance and organization. Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer Alan Mattlage had originally thought of the panel just two months ago. Hundreds of people turned out to hear what the candidates for SD13 had to offer regarding climate and environment for California. The event was sponsored by 350 Silicon Valley, Acterra, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Midpen Media Center, and Sustainable San Mateo County, and also included 20 other participating organizations, including Urban Environmentalists.
Many of the questions were excellent, and the candidates generally described coherent and interesting policies to tackle climate change. Over the course of two hours, four Democrats and one Republican debated topics as varied as:
How to deal with the perceived high upfront cost of most household climate measures, like EVs, rooftop solar, home retrofits for non-gas appliances,
However, California’s greatest present and future climate challenge is vehicle emissions. Though California has met its emissions goals under AB 32 early, transportation emissions have increased, even as we have made progress in renewable electricity (https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-adv-california-climate-pollution-20180722-story.html) The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has warned that we are not on track to hit the goals stipulated by Senate Bill 375, which set goals for reducing emissions from vehicles. Vehicle miles traveled and CO2 emissions per capita are moving in the wrong direction, and there continues to be a “disconnect between the factors that shape regional growth and development in California and the state’s environmental, equity, climate, health, economic, and housing goals.” CARB recognized that people are being forced to drive long distances due to a lack of affordable places to live served by adequate transportation options, and they emphasize over and over again is that we cannot address our transportation emission challenges without simultaneously addressing our housing affordability challenges and access to transit infrastructure. (https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/sites/default/files/2018-11/Final2018Report_SB150_112618_02_Report.pdf)
SB 50 - The connection between housing and climate
Given these challenges, we were very interested in how candidates would respond to a question about Senate Bill 50: “Lack of housing has major land use impacts. What is your position on SB 50?” The bill would remove local zoning and height restrictions in residential areas near public transportation and in jobs-rich areas, enabling greater housing construction while also taking a big step towards reducing commutes and transportation emissions for many Californians. No other proposed legislation seems to tackle the challenges raised by CARB so directly. And yet, some in the audience audibly pooh-poohed the measure, and almost all the candidates came out against it.
Josh Becker began by acknowledging the commuting problem. In fact, his friend, Josh Harder in Congressional House District 10, told him 85,000 people from Harder’s Central Valley district commute to the western Bay Area to work. Becker blamed the creation of too many jobs and an influx of “well-paid tech workers” for driving up housing demand and displacing those from the traditional middle-class, like teachers. To prevent the housing-jobs imbalance from getting worse, he proposed that every company in the area with over 1000 employees should be compelled to develop a unit of housing for every new job req they open. He also thinks the state government should encourage the development of more affordable housing.
Michael Brownrigg agreed with SB 50’s diagnosis, but said it offered the wrong prescription. He talked about working with local governments to achieve zoning reform and pointed to Burlingame’s recent general plan update as a success story: the north Burlingame neighborhood close to the Millbrae transit station has now been zoned to include more housing.
Sally Lieber said SB 50 was well-intentioned, but thought there was not enough accountability in the bill to build affordable housing. She expressed concern that this one bill had “suck[ed] all the oxygen out of the room”, and it would be better to have multiple, more focused bills tackling different dimensions of the housing problem, like reducing surplus parking, beefing up agencies that are responsible for housing accountability, and using public land for housing more effectively. Last year, she was also on the record suggesting that “mechanisms [should be included] for allowing some local decision-making, protections to prevent displacement of low-income residents living in existing housing and ‘ironclad’ protections for open space” (https://padailypost.com/2019/08/21/none-of-the-state-senate-candidates-support-sb50-but-three-say-theyd-vote-for-it-if-it-were-amended/).
Alex Glew said he was opposed to SB 50 and also blamed the housing crisis entirely on companies. He said too many jobs had been created and we just need to stop creating jobs. It was very funny to hear this from a Republican.
The only candidate to support the measure was Shelly Masur. Like Lieber, in the Daily Post she was quoted as saying SB 50 should “give cities a period of time to develop their own transit-oriented development plan that meets the goals of SB50, and if cities don’t make a plan, then SB50 would automatically apply.” That provision is now in the bill. She also has the endorsement of SB 50’s author, Scott Wiener, and talked positively about the recent inclusion of a 15-25% affordability requirement for SB 50-enabled housing.
Of all the candidates, Shelly Masur best articulated the interplay of housing and transportation with climate. As mentioned earlier, CARB explicitly linked housing affordability and transportation access to emissions reductions in transportation. Moreover, while almost all the candidates talked about the importance of housing and transportation, Masur explicitly said “housing and transit policy are climate policy”. She also connected our current housing imbalance to a history of racially exclusionary policies and said she wanted to make sure she hired a staff that was representative of the district and who were community representatives and organizers.
The other candidates’ statements on SB 50 and their records indicate they are not grappling the depth and seriousness of the housing crisis.
Lieber’s preference that the legislature should tackle housing on multiple fronts is odd given that over the past couple of sessions, the legislature has passed multiple bills to tackle multiple dimensions of housing: AB 1482 capped rent increases, AB 1487 created a regional housing funding mechanism, SB 828 made cities more accountable for meeting their RHNA goals, and a set of other bills made it easier to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs).
Some of Lieber’s concerns about SB 50 are already in the bill. As of January 2020, the bill:
While Becker proposed an idea to stop the problem from getting worse, he didn’t mention how he would address the current jobs-housing imbalance: from 2010 to 2017, San Mateo County alone added 12 jobs for every 1 housing unit, so we need proposals to make up that deficit (https://homeforallsmc.org/challenge/). Second, even if companies did commit to develop housing units for their workers, they could still be denied the housing permits by the planning commissions and city councils. Just look at how much effort Google is currently engaged in to develop housing in the Mountain View North Bayshore location of the company headquarters. It still has not been built.
Becker’s focus on affordable housing as a solution to the problem is incomplete. First, it would cost the state and cities far more than they could possibly afford to house all rent-burdened people in affordable housing, more than $250 billion according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Second, most low-income Californians, let alone the middle-class ones, live in market-rate housing. So unless both market-rate and affordable housing becomes easier to build, we will not add enough units. (https://lao.ca.gov/publications/report/3345)
Brownrigg’s remarks had three problems. First, the state has tried working with cities to achieve housing goals in the past, through the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process. The problem is that cities have historically not been held accountable for not meeting their RHNA goals (https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-pol-ca-housing-supply/) Indeed, many cities flout those goals openly. Second, the north Burlingame neighborhood he championed as an example of good “neighborhood cooperation” is almost entirely industrial: it is easier to zone for more housing in an area where almost no one currently lives. Finally, Burlingame’s new General Plan actually makes Burlingame’s jobs-housing imbalance worse. In 2015, the jobs-housing ratio was 2.3. The envisioned buildout would increase this to 2.5 (https://www.envisionburlingame.org/files/managed/Document/455/BurlingameGP_PublicHearingDraft_Jan2019_Chapter2%20%28Community%20Context%29.pdf, CX-19). Meanwhile, the Building Industry Association says 1.5 is a “healthy” ratio (https://www.biabayarea.org/san-francisco-bay-area-jobs-housing-imbalance) Brownrigg is therefore overstating his record as a “champion” of housing; under his watch, things are actually going to get worse.
As an Urban Environmentalist, I fully believe in our mission statement: “To address the climate and inequality crises by transforming cities and towns into inclusive communities designed around people rather than cars.” (https://www.urbanenvironmentalists.org/mission--values.html) Based on the discussion that occurred at the climate panel, I think the only candidate who represents those values in the SD 13 race is Shelly Masur.
Acknowledgements: Thank you Adina Levin, Mike Dunham, Robert Spragg, and Zack Subin for providing edits and feedback.