Former Fresno Mayor Swearengin recently lamented to the Urban Institute that Fresno, with the help of the high speed rail project, risks becoming a bedroom community to the Bay Area, garnering little but retail jobs from that project’s substantial public investment. The problem, however, is more deeply embedded in other ill-conceived public policies of our government entities.
The Bay Area’s housing crisis is the chief culprit in making the San Joaquin Valley a mere bedroom community with limited commercial base. Addressing its causes are not among the former mayor’s platform of public policy initiatives. However, litigation pending in Fresno Superior Court highlights causes and potential solutions.
Interestingly, The Two Hundred, a coalition of civil rights activists pursuing this litigation, includes Sunne Wright McPeak, a former government official and nonprofit manager who Swearengin has espoused as one of her heroes. Swearengin would do well to champion policy reforms pursued by the The Two Hundred.
The Two Hundred’s primary lawsuit is against California’s Air Resources Board. Its premise, well supported by legal analysis and policy documentation, is that California’s greenhouse gas policies have induced a housing crisis that disproportionately impacts minority communities in violation of fair housing and equal protection laws. That crisis has displaced minority communities from the Bay Area, racially segregating Bay Area cities and causing minorities to flee to the affordability of the Central Valley.
California officials often claim to have demonstrated that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced while retaining a healthy economy. However, California policies have actually accomplished neither. Over the past decade, 41 states have reduced per capita greenhouse gas emissions by more than California. Since 2007, California has had the highest poverty rate in the country – over 8 million people living below the U.S. Census Bureau poverty line, when taking housing costs into account. This reality is masked by statewide economic data, skewed by the remarkable profits and economic benefits that a small cohort of Bay Area technology companies have delivered to a small slice of our citizenry.
What do greenhouse gas policies have to do with a housing affordability crisis? Lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act are routinely used to advance economic and exclusionary objectives (based on class and/or race) rather than environmental objectives. They increase costs, create delays, and block critically needed housing that otherwise complies with state and local policies. The statewide housing shortfall is currently estimated at 3,000,000 units.
California agencies, without authorizing legislation, continue to increase requirements to detail greenhouse gas mitigations in CEQA documents. In so doing, they create more avenues for more CEQA lawsuits and greater burdens on housing production.
The Two Hundred recently filed a companion lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court. It details how California’s air board, in conjunction with a myriad of other state agencies, are working to keep secret the deliberations conducted to develop new CEQA mandates on greenhouse gas emissions. The suit seeks public records, which state agencies claim should be withheld to protect their ability to conduct candid discussions outside the realm of the public.
Those candid discussions resulted a “scoping plan” for future greenhouse gas reduction strategies. It intends to substantially diminish development of new single-family homes, and mandate future development of high-density infill housing. That type of housing is far more expensive than traditional single-family homes, reduces home ownership, and is the type of development that is the top target of CEQA lawsuits. Forcing families to do without backyards puts greater pressure on public parks that are also becoming homeless encampments.
The administratively imposed “scoping plan” also mandates substantial reductions in vehicle miles traveled by Californians, even though fuel efficiencies and cleaner emission mean new vehicles are not a significant contribution to greenhouse gases. Targeted reduction in vehicle trips require increased transit use that can be accomplished only by substantial increases in high-density multifamily housing. These community densifications were championed by Swearengin when she held office, through rezonings that many Fresno property owners are only now learning about. The larger costs of these policies, which do little to achieve stated greenhouse gas reductions, are visited upon the youngest and lowest-income portion of our citizens.
These ineffective greenhouse gas reduction strategies enhance CEQA lawsuits against housing development, and increase housing costs. They are a significant contributor to the Bay Area housing crisis. They are the catalyst for turning Fresno into that region’s bedroom community, which high speed rail will further foster. Swearengin laments it, but it is a direct outgrowth of policies she championed locally as Fresno’s mayor.
Jeff Reid is an attorney specializing in land use. He was a former Fresno city manager.