Los Angeles and San Francisco Are Bottom Two In Housing Affordability Due To Restrictive Policies

A new study from the real estate website Zillow adds further evidence as to how coastal California’s restrictive housing policies have led to a severe housing and rental crunch:

It’s easy to see how San Francisco has become one of the country’s least affordable housing markets: Zillow’s analysis showed that for every 1,000 new residents, there were just 193 new housing units permitted. Residents of the San Francisco metro can expect to spend 44 percent of their income on rent, or 39.2 percent on a monthly mortgage payment.

Los Angeles is the worst just 187 new housing permits for every 1000 new residents.  Residents in Los Angeles County spend 40.1% of their income on a mortgage (if they’re homeowners) and 48.2% of their incomes on rent.  Ouch.

The best solution?  Deregulate local land use policies, allowing more well-planned compact housing near transit, and build new offices near transit stations as well.  Otherwise, we can expect more of these same results going forward, with all the attendant environmental destruction and economic inequality.

Bipartisan Vote In The U.S. Senate On Energy Efficiency

Rob Portman (D-OH)

Rob Portman (D-OH)

Last week, the U.S. Senate actually made some progress addressing climate change. Well, not explicitly.  But a late-night vote on a bipartisan bill will help the federal government improve energy efficiency in buildings. There are lots of good reasons to encourage energy efficiency (mainly saving money), but it also just happens to be a major part of the strategy to help with the climate fight.

Perhaps even more encouraging was the bipartisan authorship, with Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) co-authoring along with Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire). Portman was one of just five Republican senators to admit earlier this year that climate change is real and that humans are playing a role.

Here are some details on the bill from the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The bill’s features aren’t exactly sexy. Portman’s staff says the bill “establishes a voluntary, market-driven approach to aligning the interests of commercial building owners and their tenants to reduce energy consumption.” It exempts certain electric resistance water heaters from pending Department of Energy regulation.

It requires federal agencies to coordinate strategies on energy-efficient information technologies. And it requires that federally leased buildings without Energy Star labels disclose their energy usage when practical.

That won’t quite fit in a soundbite response to the NRDC and Portman’s other environmental critics.

Yet Portman explains it all as simply “good for the economy and good for the environment.”

It’s easy to get caught up in solar panels, batteries, and electric vehicles (I certainly do), but if we don’t get more efficient with the energy we have, those other technology pieces won’t be enough. This bill is overall a pretty small step, but it’s solidly in the right direction.

Music For The End Of March

Brazil’s national treasure (and evidently pretty groovy dancer) A.C. Jobim sings about the rains and the end of March with Elis Regina, in one of my all-time favorite duets. I love how Elis loses it at the end:

Florida Conservatives Launching Ballot Initiative To Allow Rooftop Solar

Florida is a bewildering place, to say the least.  It’s arguably the state most vulnerable to climate change (Miami is projected to be well underwater with sea level rise), yet it’s just-reelected governor actually barred state employees from saying those words (sometimes to hilarious effect).

It’s also the state with some of the best sun exposure in the country, and yet it is one of only five states that bans anyone from receiving electricity from any entity other than utilities.  That means building owners there have little incentive to purchase rooftop solar if they can’t sell it back to the grid.

And now to further add to my confusion, a group of conservatives are trying to place a 2016 ballot measure to overturn this rule and open the door to rooftop solar.

It’s nice to see conservatives get behind solar, as we’ve seen in other states.  Florida should be a major market for solar companies.  But I’ll continue to scratch my head about the politics of that state and all its contradictions. I guess all we can do is laugh, and for that we have Jon Stewart:

KQED Radio Interview: From A Gas Tax To A Mile-Based Fee

It’s no secret that our transportation infrastructure is badly underfunded. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993 and doesn’t keep pace with inflation, leading to a 30 percent effective reduction in revenue. And vehicles are getting more fuel efficient. While that’s a good thing in general, it means less revenue from the gas tax for roads, bridges and the like.

With new revenue coming in, from an environmental perspective, we could ensure that the money gets spent as cost-effectively as possible and that it allows for more transportation options, such as for transit, bike, and pedestrian usage.

KQED Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area covered this topic in the context of rising gas prices. Reporter Bryan Goebel interviewed me for the piece, which you can list to here:

Nonpartisan California Government Report Links High Housing Costs To Lack Of Supply

Count me as a supply-sider. Not when it comes to Reaganomics, where supply-side economics has reliably led to deficits and inequality.  No, I’m talking about addressing California’s insanely high housing costs.  These high costs are squeezing the middle class and businesses alike, creating economic inequality and environmental ruin as residents move to far-flung housing over open space and agricultural land with long commutes.

As a supply-sider, I believe we can address this crisis by increasing housing supply, particularly in coastal areas.  And now the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) has comprehensively documented how this lack of housing supply as led to corresponding price increases in a new report. The report compares California’s housing prices to the nationwide average, and the trends are bad:

Beginning in about 1970, however, home prices throughout the state began to accelerate. Prices were 80 percent above U.S. levels by 1980, and by 2010, the typical California home was twice as expensive as the typical U.S. home. As of 2015, average California home prices were two–and–a–half times higher than average national home prices.

It’s even worse in our coastal metropolitan areas, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.  Compared to other metropolitan areas, coastal California cities haven’t built housing like they should have:

For example, Seattle—a coastal metro with economic characteristics and average temperatures that are similar to California’s Bay Area metros—added new housing units at about twice the rate as San Francisco and San Jose over the last two decades. (Specifically, Seattle’s housing stock—its total number of housing units—grew at an average annual rate of 1.4 percent per year while San Francisco and San Jose’s housing stock grew by only 0.7 percent per year.)

Per Economics 101 and overwhelming statistical analysis, the LAO firmly attributes the price rise to the lack of supply:

Our review indicates that that the relationship between growth of housing supply and increased housing costs is complex and affected by other factors—such as demographics, local economies, and weather. Nonetheless, using common statistical techniques to account for the influence of these other factors, there remains a strong relationship between home building and prices. For example, our analysis suggests that—after controlling for other factors—if a county with a home building rate in the bottom fifth of all counties during the 2000s had instead been among the top fifth, its median home price in 2010 would have been roughly 25 percent lower. Similarly, its median rent would have been roughly 10 percent lower.

It’s worth noting that some local housing activists dispute this causal link.  They claim that the problem isn’t with supply but with other factors like income levels.  San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim even tweeted a link to this article that claimed to debunk the supply-side argument, although it only analyzed housing production in the City of San Francisco and failed to examine supply issues across the metropolitan region.  The LAO (and I) certainly concede that there are multiple factors affecting housing prices, but the lack of supply is certainly — indisputably — a big one.

So what is stopping new supply?  The LAO first and foremost points to restrictive local land use policies.  Conservatives like to bag on California for all of its supposedly anti-business regulations (although I’d like to note that California has been doing better in the past year than every state, including conservative poster child Texas, in the economic output department).  But they always seem to ignore our over-regulated local housing sector.

Local governments in California’s coastal areas have steadfastly refused to allow enough housing production.  They make it illegal under zoning codes; they approve retail projects over housing to chase sales tax dollars; their residents threaten ballot initiatives over new housing projects; and neighborhood groups sue housing developers under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The state is rife with examples.  Santa Monica residents get their pitchforks out over new housing and office towers near transit, San Franciscans rebel against waterfront housing development, and Oakland and Berkeley residents gnarl down a Safeway redevelopment near BART.  The result is that young families and the middle class are chased out.  New businesses can’t locate in coastal areas because workers require high salaries to afford a middle-class existence.  The air quality worsens for everyone as people drive long distances.  Open space is paved over in outlying areas for cheaper housing away from wealthy coastal residents.  And income inequality soars as California becomes a place for the wealthy on the coast and the working class inland.

In short, it’s not a recipe for success or quality-of-life, and it should be a priority to deregulate land use in our coastal areas.  Otherwise, the LAO reports of the future are going to be even more bleak.

So Much Renewable Energy, No Place To Store It

The L.A. Times picks up a story that will only become more common as more renewables come on-line: the lack of resources to store surplus, intermittent renewables.  In the old days we simply matched supply to demand, mainly by burning fuels like natural gas and coal.  Nowadays we need to react to the energy supplied by nature — specifically when the sun shines on solar panels and the wind turns the turbines.

The article references the problem in a powerful anecdote:

On a quiet Sunday morning last April, power plants were pumping far more energy into California’s electricity grid than residents needed for their refrigerators, microwaves and television sets.

So officials made an odd request in a state that prides itself on leadership in renewable energy: They asked wind and solar plants to cut back their output. For 90 minutes, clean energy production was slashed 1,142 megawatts, enough electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes, while dirtier power from less flexible sources stayed on to keep the system stable.

The article then points to some of the promising energy storage resources out there, from big battery banks to compressed air. It also describes the need to moderate our demand to match the resources, as well as the opportunities to export (and import) surplus renewable power from across the western U.S.

Ultimately, we’ll need all of these resources and more, at cheaper cost, to truly decarbonize our electricity grid and achieve long term greenhouse gas reduction goals. Otherwise, we’ll have to keep burning the dirty fuels when nature isn’t giving us the clean ones.

Epic Yosemite Time Lapse Video

It may be hard to beat this one (make sure you go full screen with audio):

More on this video here.

Comparing Light Rail Histories In Atlanta And Los Angeles

Ryan Reft takes a look at the histories of light rail efforts in both Atlanta and Los Angeles, showing how race, class and local opposition groups limited the effectiveness of both systems:

In both the case of the Blue Line and the construction of MARTA, charismatic, dedicated, and ultimately trusted political leaders fought hard for each and delivered. Could it be that simple, or have the ground rules changed so much that not even a [Los Angeles County supervisor] Kenneth Hahn or [Atlanta mayor] Sam Massell [could] deliver the goods today? In Atlanta at least, a coalition of “planners, hipsters, and other yuppies” haven’t gotten the job done. Perhaps, this time Atlanta should examine how L.A. and Kenneth Hahn managed to constructed a constituency large enough to build the light rail he dreamed of, which brought improvements to Compton and South Central, enabled suburbanites to travel between the region’s two biggest employment centers, and catalyzed award-winning transit-oriented urban development all around the county. In the 1970s, Hahn looked to the Southeast, perhaps Atlanta needs to look to the West.

Both cities suffered the same racial and class divisions that sapped public support for rail and twisted the lines into less effective routes. But I’m struck by the neighborhood opposition to development along the rail lines in both places, particularly based on a fear of gentrification.

In order for light rail to work, in terms of generating sufficient ridership to avoid becoming a huge economic liability for local transit systems, we need the lines to become growth inducing around the stations. That’s really the whole point of a rail line. Yet if we allow neighborhoods to prevent that growth, based on fears of displacement, traffic, lack of parking, and changing the character of the place, then we’ve negated the whole point of rail to begin with.

Certainly the lack of housing affordability and gentrification are reasonable concerns. But they shouldn’t be used as excuses to stop all development. Rather, that development should include a range of affordable housing, and project proponents should do their best to preserve local character.

Otherwise, we’ll end up with more sad rail histories, as we unfortunately see too much of in both Atlanta and Los Angeles.

The Futility Of An International Climate Treaty

Call it Kyoto Syndrome, but each year for the past few decades we hear hopeful things about the upcoming negotiations for the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”  These discussions usually take place in some far-flung world capital, and they unfailingly result in a nothing sandwich.  In 2009, President Obama humiliated himself with a last-ditch flight to Copenhagen to try to hammer out something meaningful.

And like clockwork this year, hopes seem to be higher than normal that something might actually get accomplished in Paris in December (that is, other than the convention attendees enjoying themselves after-hours in the cafes and tourist sites in the City of Lights).

Mercifully, Ruth Greenspan Bell dispenses with the fiction that a meaningful international agreement is either feasible or likely to make a difference if one were to actually get signed.  In an article for Georgetown International Environmental Law Review (PDF), she questions the assumptions underlying these talks:

Negotiators have, apparently, uncritically accepted the proposition that a huge basket of climate-related issues—each of them very complex and requiring for their execution the cooperation of many parties with often wildly disparate views—can (indeed, must) be resolved in one comprehensive agreement. They also assume that such agreements, should they be signed and ratified, will lead to assured changes in the GHG emission practices of the many parties to the agreement.

It’s worth reading the piece in full, but in short, Bell traces the history of multilateral agreements in the environmental context and notes the tremendous uncertainty about their effectiveness.  And the greenhouse gas problem is arguably even more difficult to tackle than some of the past agreements that addressed single pollutants with often straightforward technology fixes or alternatives. She also points out how challenging the UN process is to reaching an agreement, with its requirement for consensus, the huge number of parties involved, and the incredible political diversity and needs of the countries at the table. And by focusing so much on ratification, the process is in danger of reaching an agreement with little enforceability or monitoring of compliance.

Meanwhile, time is running out on our ability to stabilize the Earth’s climate.

Given the urgency, Bell offers some alternatives that could actually achieve reductions sooner. Most importantly, we need to forget about a comprehensive agreement and instead bite off more manageable international agreements, akin to the progress made in the international weapons arena. For example, major emitter nations could come to terms on pollution targets among themselves; developing countries could negotiate over reduced amount of emissions reductions; and bilateral agreements, such as the recent one between China and the U.S., might pave the way for future agreements between other countries.

Overall, I believe that the solution to global climate change will come locally, from technology, policy, and financing innovations that happen within places like California, China and Germany. But at some point we will need a global approach to limiting carbon to reflect the true cost of this pollution to our economy, health, and environment. I’d much prefer that we engage in that process in a way that will actually achieve results, rather than spinning our wheels on the international stage each year.

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