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[COMMENTARY] Americans Worried About Climate Change Should Follow California’s Example and Support Housing Built Near Public Transit

[COMMENTARY] Americans Worried About Climate Change Should Follow California’s Example and Support Housing Built Near Public Transit

California is a leader in tackling climate change. The science is firm: the earth is getting hotter and we humans are largely the cause. Most Californians support policies to address climate change, including the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California, among others. However, in order to meet the state’s GHG reduction targets, Californians are creating housing in areas that are well served by public transportation.

Passengers board a MUNI bus along Market Street in San Francisco, California. With gas prices soaring, many commuters are choosing public transportation over driving in order to save money. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Governor Newsom recently signed two new laws to address the housing crisis. While SB 9 makes it legal for individual homeowners to divide their property previously zoned for single-family housing into two lots, SB 10 empowers local governments to increase density by creating more residential units on a single parcel of land up to 10 units in areas well served by public transit under certain conditions. SB10 will support the gradual densification of urbanized areas in order to increase the housing supply.  

What’s the relationship between climate change and housing? Housing is an essential human need. Where we build housing matters. Urban planners advocate for a good balance between jobs and housing. However, in many American cities and metropolitan regions, people move further and further away from their workplaces in order to find affordable housing. 

Building housing near transit hubs is the next best thing to living close to work, which is desirable but not always feasible. Living close to transit hubs encourages the public to get out of their cars and use public transit because it is a more convenient option, and no one really likes being stuck in traffic anyway. Saving the environment is an added benefit because gas-powered passenger cars are one of the largest contributors of GHGs.

Housing provision concerns every community. As an urban planning educator at San José State University with over 20 years of experience, and as a member of the American Planning Association, I am intimately acquainted with the housing challenges facing my community and region. Undoubtedly, housing needs differ across communities but the underlying zoning laws have to be adjusted to accommodate the new realities of housing affordability and climate change. We have begun bold action on increasing the housing supply in California’s cities and metropolitan regions. 

Since housing development decisions are often determined at the local level, Americans should get involved in housing conversations in communities where they live.  Americans concerned about the climate crisis should write to their elected officials and encourage them to support the Bipartisan Housing Supply and Affordability Act (S 902 and H.R. 2126). Specifically, the Build Back Better Act currently being signed into law contains provisions that will directly assist communities to upgrade housing plans, replace antiquated zoning policies, and create a framework for increasing housing choices and higher affordability. By creating multi-family units and highly clustered housing arrangements, we can address goals of increasing our nation’s housing supply and making public transportation profitable. By concentrating on housing development within existing settlements, we can protect our natural areas and limit urban sprawl. 

 Here are specific actions Americans can champion where they live:

Advocate for design innovations: The design and construction of multi-family units can be accommodated through different housing designs, including townhomes, rowhouses, live-work units, and small apartment complexes. Housing can be built using energy-efficient construction methods, and sustainable materials that reduce GHG emissions.

See Also

Advocate for regulation reform: Regulation reform includes streamlining permitting processes for design, planning, and construction. Housing construction costs escalate as a result of complex regulatory requirements.

Advocate for housing affordability: By consciously creating mixed-income housing as a development strategy, we can create homeownership or stable rent models for households who earn close to or below their area’s median income (AMI). 

Each of these ideas can work alone, but together, they have a better chance to create a truly meaningful impact. Creating affordable housing and protecting our planet from the ravages of human-induced climate change are twin goals that can be aligned effectively. But we must act now.

About The Author
Dr. Laxmi Ramasubramanian, AICP is a professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Department at San José State University, a certified urban planner, and the incoming President of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. She is a 2021-2022 Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.
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