The high cost of housing in California isn’t just hurting the state’s economy, fueling homelessness, and exacerbating economic inequality. It’s imperiling its reputation as a global leader in emissions reductions, too.
Lila Cabrera’s move last year to Palmdale, a city of 160,000 in the high-desert region of Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles, illustrates the connection. As a renter in Sylmar, Calif., “I was overdrawn every month,” says the single mom of three. “I just couldn’t see it turning around.” Now, a $1,370 mortgage payment gets her family more space for less money. It also gets her a 51-mile commute, which, in typical bumper-to-bumper traffic, takes an average of two hours each way.
As residents like Cabrera move farther from their employment in search of affordable homes, the state’s progress toward its climate goals is slowing. In 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, the state’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped at less than half the rate of the previous year, according to an August report from the San Francisco-based nonprofit Next 10. Low gas prices and a lack of affordable housing prompted more driving and contributed to a 3.1 percent increase in exhaust from cars, buses, and trucks, the report says. Census data show that more than 635,000 California workers had commutes of 90 minutes or more in 2015, a 40 percent jump from 2010.
“California has failed to build [housing] in the communities where we’re seeing the largest job growth,” says Patrick Kallerman, research director at the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in San Francisco. “The highest-income folks can afford to live wherever they want,” he says. “It’s the middle- or lower-income folks who can’t.”
The state needs 180,000 new housing units each year, but fewer than 100,000 are built, according to Governor Jerry Brown’s office. “Each year that it goes on, things get worse,” Kallerman says. Lack of accountability is one reason. California tasks regional agencies with developing sustainable community planning strategies, which include reducing sprawl. But when communities fail to meet their own goals, there are no mechanisms to penalize them, he says.
One disincentive for builders is the fiscalization of land use: Housing raises less tax revenue for local governments than retail. For Cabrera, the incentives are even more twisted. She works as a mortgage loan processor for a bank near Hollywood. Her $72,000 yearly salary is heavily dependent on commissions, which are determined by real estate prices. Were she to swap her job for one in Palmdale, she’d earn less money and revert to living paycheck to paycheck. So it goes for many Californians: When cost of living is accounted for, census data show that the state has the nation’s highest poverty rate, at 20.6 percent.
Brown has embraced the role of counterweight to the do-nothing climate deniers in Washington, most recently at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany. A Democrat in his fourth and final term in office, he’s championed the passage of the strictest emissions laws of any state. But residents’ continued reliance on cars is getting in the way. Transportation accounts for almost 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in California, more than any other sector, compared with 27 percent nationwide.
The state legislature made the housing crisis a focus of this year’s session, passing 15 related bills. One seeks to expedite construction by accelerating the approval process for affordable housing. Another could raise as much as $250 million annually for subsidized housing—enough to build just 750 homes, given the $332,000 per unit estimate from Brown’s office. Another places a referendum on next year’s ballot asking voters to approve $4 billion for low-income housing and home loans for veterans. “They’re good, they move the ball forward,” Brown said before signing the measures into law in October. “Have they ended the need for further legislation? Unfortunately not.”