Building an Ecosocialist Housing Policy: Lessons from SB 827

SB 827 is done and dusted, at least for now. Throughout the debate on the controversial bill, one critical factor remained mostly unexamined: what effect would this proposed housing and transportation legislation have had on the environment? Now, though the specter of SB 827 is in California’s collective rear-view, it is important to discuss the effects that the bill could have had on climate change, carbon output, and the environmental politics of the state.

Although bill sponsor Sen. Scott Wiener, along with some environmental advocates, touted the bill as a climate solution — dense housing close to public transit being the key — they failed to recognize the role that displacement and affluence play in harming our planet. SB 827 would have been been terrible for the environment on several fronts: (1) SB 827 was likely to lead to higher overall carbon emissions; (2) it stood to fracture a climate-oriented political coalition by pitting working class communities of color against “climate hawks;” and (3) it promulgated the myth that the market can solve the climate crisis, a fairy tale that ignores more potent and already-existing solutions.

As we seek policies that can deal with our existential housing and climate nightmares, the climate justice movement can learn from the missteps of SB 827 and contribute to a winnable, socially and ecologically just housing policy.


Carbon Emissions and SB 827

A common narrative in modern urban development is that low-income communities are displaced and replaced by new residents who are more affluent and thus capable of affording market-rate housing. Transit-oriented development — the concept of focusing new housing density around existing public transit — has evidence-backed connections to neighborhood destabilization, higher housing costs, and eventual displacement.

But beyond the destabilizing effects they have on communities, displacement and affluence are also direct contributors to increased carbon emissions. How? Well, who moves into market-rate housing after displacement occurs? And those new folks, what are their transportation habits? It’s affluent people moving in, and they contribute higher emissions and are less likely to use public transit. And what happens when folks are displaced and move out? Many are forced deep into suburban sprawl, though many continue to commute into the city. This is a double whammy of carbon emissions: first, lower-income communities and people of color, who are more likely to use public transit and thus be lower carbon emitters, are removed from the city and replaced by higher emitters; second, those formerly-low emitters, who have now been displaced, become higher emitters as they are forced to live in transit-inaccessible areas and commute by car. The unrecognized displacement and affluence effects of SB 827 would have accelerated this process: bringing in new, higher-emitting affluent residents, all while transforming formerly-low-emitters into tomorrow’s car commuting high emitters.

Displacement and sprawl aren’t problems specific to the Bay Area: overall, there is a growing distance between people and jobs in metropolitan America. Residents of high-poverty and majority-minority neighborhoods experienced particularly pronounced declines in job proximity — 55 percent of majority-minority neighborhoods experienced declines in job proximity between 2000 and 2012. The climate impact of this home-to-job distance is clear: if you force workers to move further away from their jobs, their carbon output will increase as their commutes are extended. SB 827’s purported goal of transit-oriented development is necessary, but the fact that SB 827 did not seriously consider gentrification or affordability from the start calls into question its seriousness about carbon reduction.

Furthermore, SB 827’s magical solution of dense, market-rate housing stock doesn’t actually mean dense living: luxury apartments often have larger square footages, which, in turn, frequently means fewer people per square foot. Luxury homes are also often held as infrequently-occupied second homes or investments. We see examples in New York, where a report from 2014 showed that in one swath of Midtown, half of the luxury apartments were not fully occupied. And recently in Paris, one in four apartments in the entire city were empty. As of January 2017, California itself has a surplus of 300,000 units for renters with above-moderate incomes. Ask yourself, if you had $2 million dollars or $6,000 a month, would you have a hard time finding housing in California? What we have is not a housing shortage crisis, but a housing affordability crisis. Any truly climate-conscious housing policy must consider how wealth factors into carbon accounting.


Fracturing a Climate Coalition

During the period when SB 827 was winding its way through the Senate, a large movement of progressive grassroots organizations came out to oppose the bill for many of the reasons stated above, correctly seeing that their needs were ignored. Meanwhile, the environmentalists who supported SB 827 were self-professed “climate hawks,” or those who prioritize the need for aggressive pro-climate policy at the expense of all other concerns. These climate hawks fail to understand that the political will to pass truly transformative environmental policy will require an emphasis on inequality and justice, a focus that will bring together a broad, diverse environmental movement, one centered around the working class and poor, particularly people of color.

Across the progressive west coast of the United States, legislative efforts to tackle climate change have foundered when they have failed to build a broad, working class coalition that incorporates social justice. A recent, massive, potentially transformative carbon tax bill stalled in Washington state, partially a result of the bill’s failure to meet the needs of communities of color, labor, and other left groups. Instead, the proponents of the Washington bill crafted a policy they believed would unite an imaginary cohort of climate-concerned citizens on the left and the right, pointing to bipartisanship as the only solution. This is the traditional myopic climate strategy: tout the benefits to the planet without considering the need to address environmental justice. Predictably, the bill failed.

Rather than these repeated, failed moves towards climate bipartisanship, in the context of our extreme wealth inequality, climate policy has the potential to get ambitious and socially-focused. In the past two years, we’ve seen other examples of previously-untouchable pillars of social policy — a jobs guarantee or Medicare For All — veer into the realm of the politically possible. Rather than find common cause with moderate Republicans, the future of actualized climate policy is to move left.

Sociologist Daniel Aldana-Cohen has pointed out that, “Polling shows that blacks, and especially Spanish-speaking Latinos, are more worried about climate change than white people are. But it’s not enough to register their support — climate policies must also defend their interests and learn from their leadership.” He continues to lay out the potential of ambitiousness: “Progressives’ and environmentalists’ challenge is to create, in the coming decade, the political conditions under which a broad majority of Americans would support truly aggressive low-carbon policies. Climate advocates need to tie the concepts of climate politics, economic fairness, and overall well-being so tightly together that no one can tell the difference.” SB 827 was not crafted with these values, but rather was created to serve developers and the wealthy people who benefit from market-rate solutions — that’s not just bad policy, it’s a wasted opportunity.


The Market is not the Answer: Climate Change, Policy, and Real Solutions

The fundamental problem with SB 827 from both housing and climate perspectives was that it relied on market solutions to problems caused by the market itself. With SB 827 off the docket, it is time to start drafting real solutions that deal with our housing and climate crises. Viable options already exist to facilitate the construction of dense housing and end the cycle of gentrification and displacement: (a) repeal Costa Hawkins, the statewide limit on rent control; (b) subsidize rent in expensive, empty apartments; and (c) start building social housing, among others. For more solutions, a contingent of DSA California chapter committees (including San Francisco DSA’s Climate and Environmental Justice Committee, which I co-chair) has a list of suggestions in a statement they produced in opposition to SB 827.

Meanwhile, there are much more direct and valuable carbon-reduction policies we can work on: (a) national measures like the national OFF act, (b) nationalizing and distributing the energy sector; (c) a progressive carbon tax, and (d) exploring the carbon reduction potential of a universal basic income or national jobs guarantee.

There are plenty of tough choices on the road ahead for environmentalists in the 21st century, but it’s an easy decision to oppose policies that displace low-income communities of color so that wealthy residents can take BART when they feel like it. Thankfully, with the death-in-committee fate of SB 827, we avoided that scenario for now, but we must carry the lessons of SB 827 into the future — the fight over California’s housing future is far from finished. If environmentally-positive laws and regulations are put into place, they must consider affluence and listen to the needs of frontline communities — not just today, but into our climate future. Let’s move on from SB 827 and get serious about reversing the climate change disaster that’s ahead of us.

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Tyler C. Brown works in landscape construction and farming, and is a Co-Chair of the Climate & Environmental Justice Committee of DSA SF, follow him at @brownusall on Twitter.