Showing all posts by Ethan Elkind
Your Friendly Reminder That Californians Pay Way More Than Everyone Else For Housing

A recent compilation of housing data shows that of America’s 27 biggest cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles rank #1 and 2 respectively in the ratio of median housing cost to median income. This is worse than traditionally expensive cities like New York City and Honolulu.

In these two California cities, you need 14.1 and 12.3 times the median income to buy a house. The best ratio is in “rust belt” places like Detroit and Cleveland, with not bad ratios in the sun belt cities of Houston and Dallas.

Sure, Californians get a lot for the high price: access to good jobs, incredible weather, beautiful scenery, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lots to do. But life doesn’t have to be that difficult for people here if the state would allow more housing to be built in infill urban areas to help stabilize prices.

Here’s a handy chart that put together documenting the ratios:

This Map Ranks The Affordability Of Houses In Major U.S. Cities (Relative To Income)


Trump May Be Inconsistent But His Administration Is Not — At Least On The Environment

Will this place still be “Carrizo Plain National Monument” after Trump’s administration has its way? Photo by Steve Hymon

In these first 100 days, our new president has backtracked on many promises, completely reversed course in others, and demonstrated an alarming disregard for the truth.

It’s enough to make some political observers think that he’s basically a malleable mishmash of blathering, with his only core desire to self-promote and perhaps increase his riches from from his various business dealings.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote recently:

What on earth is the point of trying to understand him when there is nothing to understand? Calling him a liar is true enough, but liars have some cognitive grip on reality, and he doesn’t. Liars remember what they have said before. His brain is a neural Etch A Sketch. He doesn’t speak, we realize; he emits random noises. He refuses to take responsibility for anything. He can accuse his predecessor and Obama’s national security adviser of crimes, and provide no evidence for either. He has no strategy beyond the next 24 hours, no guiding philosophy, no politics, no consistency at all — just whatever makes him feel good about himself this second. He therefore believes whatever bizarre nonfact he can instantly cook up in his addled head, or whatever the last person who spoke to him said. He makes Chauncey Gardiner look like Abraham Lincoln. Occam’s razor points us to the obvious: He has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. Which is reassuring and still terrifying all at once.

That may be true when it comes to Trump personally and as a politician.  But it does not apply when it comes to his appointees in the administration on the environment.  Because across-the-board, the administration seems motivated by one thing when it comes to the environment, and that’s boosting the oil, gas, and coal industries at the expense of everything else.

There are too many examples to cite, but it’s worth going through some of them:

  1. Attempting to roll back key regulations like the Clean Power Plan and the fuel economy standards
  2. Gutting the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy clean tech research, and public transit, among others
  3. Overturning environmental regulations with Congress through use of the once-obscure Congressional Review Act
  4. Reviewing, with the likely intent of undoing, prior national monument designations, including the Carrizo Plain here in California that I recently profiled.

So while Trump may be incoherent and bereft of some core principles, he has empowered an administration full of individuals dead set on boosting oil, gas, and coal exploitation, at the expense of the environment and public health.

The Promises And Perils Of Expanding California’s Grid Across The West

RowofWindTurbines2Sammy Roth at The Desert Sun penned an engaging deep dive on the issues confronting California and the west if the state expands its grids into traditionally coal- and Republican-dominated states like Idaho and Wyoming.

It’s an important issue, because as California produces more renewable energy than it can use locally, it will need markets to export that surplus.  Similarly, the state will need to import surplus renewables (like wind from Wyoming and morning sun from Utah) when our wind and solar output is weak.

The upside for ratepayers is potentially huge savings (as Greentech media also described last December), while the upside for environmentalists is more renewable energy capacity without needing backup fossil fuel plants.  And long term, more renewable development in these conservative states could change the politics there, as a domestic clean tech industry may lobby for more favorable policies.

But the expansion is held up by two factors: first, concern that grid expansion will throw a lifeline to out-of-state coal-fired plants that would otherwise get shuttered (environmentalists are split on whether that would happen, but California’s grid operator does anticipate a slight increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the plants in the short term, with significant long-term reductions); and second, disagreements over how grid governance would work across such diverse states:

“There’s not going to be any scenario where I would agree to a situation where the California Legislature is dictating policy to the state of Wyoming,” Matt Mead, Wyoming’s Republican governor, said in an interview. “Clearly, Wyoming is the No. 1 coal-producing state. It probably has a different perspective than California does.”

The mistrust cuts both ways. Officials in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming — deep-red states that rely on coal and other fossil fuels and don’t see climate action as a priority — don’t want to give coastal liberals too much power to decide which types of energy they use. Lawmakers in California, Oregon and Washington, but especially California, have the same concern about the red states.

If the governance issues cannot be solved, I wonder if a possible interim solution might be to focus on immediate grid expansion just to Oregon and Washington, given their similar politics and commitment to renewables. Then in future years it could expand to more fossil fuel-dependent states, once the market and governance kinks have been ironed out.

Meanwhile, the article is worth checking out just for the interactive map of every type of power plant in the entire U.S., including pumped storage facilities (I can’t reproduce it on my blog here but you can find it about 2/3 of the way down the article).

Supposedly the California legislature will debate grid expansion later this year, although I understand there’s a lot of skepticism from legislators, particularly about having California policies provide economic benefits out-of-state.  But in the long term, it’s hard to see how California can achieve deep decarbonization in the electricity sector without this kind of regional approach.

Lessons From Recovering Climate Deniers

People who deny the overwhelming science on climate change may seem stubborn, obstinate and close minded.  But not all of them.  In fact, there are recovering deniers among us, and they may offer interesting lessons for how to reach others stuck in their former state of mind.

A question on Reddit about what changed climate deniers’ minds yielded some interesting answers.  Yale Climate Connections then analyzed the 66 responses.  The biggest reason was a slow acceptance of clear scientific evidence:

atlas_ryJxQi90x@2xAs the news site Quartz explained:

Seeing graphs of atmospheric carbon dioxde and overwhelming data supporting the conclusion that humans are rapidly, catastrophically warming the planet was convincing for many. “It’s just difficult for me to deny it with the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that supports it,” wrote one. The desire to safeguard the Earth, evidence of extreme weather, and dubious sources among climate change deniers sealed the deal for most of the rest.

Yet at the same time, past studies have revealed that showing climate deniers more facts and charts just gets them more dug into their position. So what’s the response?

Perhaps the most important approach is to start with one that disarms a climate denier.  Frame climate solutions in less threatening terms, such as starting with solutions like geoengineering and nuclear power that can get deniers thinking productively about the challenge.  Other research suggests that talking about what might be lost with climate change or what the impacts of following the denial logic might be could be persuasive to deniers.

Otherwise, these responses on Reddit indicate that continuous hammering of the overwhelming scientific consensus may actually bear fruit over the long run.

Understanding NIMBYs

nimbyNIMBYs are at the heart of California’s biggest economic and environmental problems: high housing costs, sprawl, and air pollution. These not-in-my-backyard residents have too-often successfully sued, lobbied, and cajoled their local governments to kill new housing, pushing home prices and rents through the roof and any new development out into sprawl areas far from jobs.

Adding insult to injury for those struggling with high housing costs, many of these NIMBYs were fortunate enough to buy homes in the state back in the 1970s when housing was plentiful and cheap and property taxes were low (and still are for them, thanks to Prop 13).

So if reaching these NIMBYs (or at least out-organizing them) is the key to solving the housing and environmental problems, how should we understand their motivations?  To this end, Richard Florida in City Lab recently examined a white paper by Paavo Monkkonen that explores what motivates NIMBYism.  Florida summarized the four main factors in the report:

  • Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.

  • Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.

  • Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s “by-right” legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.

  • Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.

To counter NIMBY effects, Monkkonen recommends more inclusive and regionalized planning, improved enforcement of existing land use laws, and better framing of local planning decisions through more data, in order to assuage local concerns.

From my experience observing NIMBY behavior around proposed housing and new development in cities and towns, these categories make sense.  But I think they can be broadened and simplified to three main ones:

1) NIMBYs with practical concerns about new development, like concern over parking and service constraints, described above.  These individuals are the easiest to work with because their concerns are often valid and can be addressed with smart public policies, like removing parking requirements to discourage automobile ownership among new residents, or appropriate fees to fund services and infrastructure investments.

2) NIMBYs who hate density.  These are individuals who genuinely believe that even something like a three-story building is essentially a skyscraper, and that skyscrapers are ugly, terrible, and confine people to rabbit-hutch like existences.  I categorize these types as essentially anti-urban.  There’s not a whole lot that can be done to alleviate their fears, absent showing them photos of elegant density and exposing them to the genuine joys of urban living, with its convenience, vibrance, and exposure to cultural activities that city living can bring.

3) Racists and bigots.  These are individuals, usually in well-off neighborhoods, who fear that new development will bring in racial or ethnic minorities or low-income people who are not “worthy” of the benefits of an affluent neighborhood.  There is not much that can be done to reach these individuals, in my experience.

What does this categorization mean for housing advocates?  Well, the best option is to try to split Group #1 off from the NIMBY mass, through dialogue and openness to mitigation measures.  Or alternatively, they can simply try to out-organize all three NIMBY groups, by pulling together coalitions of young people, renters, labor unions, and some smart growth advocates, for example.

That out-organizing process has been happening in Los Angeles, with the defeat of Measure S.  If it continues, even members of Group #1 may find themselves left out of the process.  That may not be a bad thing, if they demand excessive mitigation measures.  But in the short term, they represent the most reachable NIMBY group.

Goodbye Bill O’Reilly

With the longtime conservative talk show host now out at Fox News due to sexual harassment allegations and settlements, I can’t help but remember his classic caught-on-camera meltdown on Inside Edition that was leaked a few years back [NSFW language]:

Given this apparent lack of self-control and verbal abuse of his staff, it’s not surprising he found himself in the trouble he’s in.

Adios Bill.

Trump Administration Freezes Grants From Successful Clean Tech Agency

My favorite clean tech federal agency is hands down ARPA-E, which as I blogged before is the most important agency you’ve never heard of. It’s funding breakthrough clean technologies and having tremendous success bringing risky and innovative tech to market.

So of course the Trump administration is doing everything it can to undermine the agency. In addition to zeroing it out for funding in its proposed (but probably DOA) budget, Trump’s team now has the agency halting approved grants from going out the door.

It’s a frustrating decision, because these technologies are exactly the kind of thing we want to incubate and develop here in America — if not for the environmental benefit then at least for the economic gains.

ThinkProgress has a nice description of the agency’s work that is now threatened, including this success story:

The agency is focused on “high-impact, high-risk and high-reward” projects, Townsend noted, and he agreed with the former program director that these are areas in which the private sector likely would not invest. For example, researchers for a group called Makani Power created a wind turbine project, funded by ARPA-E, that sends airborne kite-like wind turbines high into the air where they harness a more consistent and powerful wind source than earthbound wind turbines. Makani Power designed the drone kites to automatically take off and adjust themselves to the windstream to maximize energy production.

ARPA-E awarded Makani Power a $3 million grant in 2009 for the project. In 2013, Google X, the search engine company’s research and investment arm, acquired Makani Power, turning the research project into a success story for ARPA-E.

Let’s hope this freeze on grants is temporary, and that the agency’s bipartisan allies in Congress can save the day when it comes to longer-term funding.

The Importance Of Gratitude

A reminder from Lisa Earle McLeod of the power of being thankful:

Look at anyone who feels like life is treating them wrong, you’ll see a total absence of gratitude. When you’re stuck in victimhood – be it lifelong victimhood or anger at the driver who cut you off on the freeway – you’re only thinking about yourself. It might not seem like self-focus when you’re feeling wronged by a boss or spouse, but in that state, all your attention is on your own negative feelings. Victimhood takes the negative aspect of a situation, pulls it inward and keeps it there.

Gratitude is different. Standing in gratitude is about seeing the good, bringing it in, and then it naturally radiates back out. For me, gratitude is not a pious head down, taking only meager offerings attitude. Gratitude is a head up smiling openhearted glow.

This may be one of the secret sauces for many religions, which often encourage gratitude and thankfulness on a daily (if not hourly) basis. And once you start saying or thinking these positive thoughts, cognitive behavioralism kicks in and can actually make you feel better.

Solving The Affordable Vs. Market-Rate Housing Debate

haste2.Kahn-Design-Associates.COURTESYCalifornia’s housing shortage has been well documented. But the obvious solutions to the problem — like eliminating local land use restrictions on new growth — have been stymied in part by infighting among the housing advocate community.

The split involves affordable housing advocates and those who want more market-rate development. Here’s the basic summary of their positions, as I see them:

  1. Market-rate housing advocates typically want barriers to all new housing removed as quickly as possible. They usually support policies to subsidize affordable housing for low-income residents but mainly want to see housing of all types built as fast and cheaply as possible.
  2. Affordable housing advocates want more subsidies for affordable housing and more affordable units required of market-rate projects. In that aspect, they often align with market-rate developer advocates. But they are also protective of low-income neighborhoods from gentrification, which they primarily blame on new market-rate developments in these neighborhoods, and so will often oppose market-rate projects in low-income areas. They also use existing land use restrictions on market-rate development as leverage to extract more affordable housing units or dollars. As a result, many of these advocates tend to want to keep the status quo (at least for market-rate development restrictions) and limit new development to prevent gentrification.

This split was perhaps most prominent back in 2011, when a bill to reduce excessive local parking requirements statewide on new housing near transit was opposed by affordable housing advocates. Why?  Many of these advocates use high parking requirements as leverage to extract more affordable units. Using the state’s “density bonus” law, they can trade reductions in parking requirements for more affordable units.

The split also appears when it comes to raising dollars for affordable housing production. Affordable advocates will attempt to extract the most fees and affordable units they can from market-rate development, which in turn makes market-rate development harder to build.

But there’s a solution to this problem that leaders on both side could support: a separately funded, statewide source of permanent dollars for affordable housing. A separate source of funding would go a long way to eliminating the incentive for affordables to oppose or weaken market-rate development.

Such a plan has been proposed in the legislature, such as SB 2 (Atkins), which would impose a $75 fee on recorded real estate documents to fund affordable housing. But its future is murky, absent more broad-based support.

To be sure, such a fund wouldn’t solve the concerns that affordable housing advocates have about gentrification caused by specific market-rate projects, and it may not reduce their resistance to alleviating local land use restrictions when those restrictions could lead to more affordable units.  But at least they would no longer have an incentive to extract higher fees from market-rate development, and a bigger pot of money for affordable units across the board may reduce their desperation to claw every bit they can from new projects.

In the long run, California will not be able to subsidize its way out of the affordable housing crisis.  It would require billions of dollars we don’t have.  And in fact, most low-income residents don’t live in subsidized housing but rather in the market-rate housing of yesteryear, which has now come down in price with age.  So the more we fail to build market-rate housing today, the more we limit affordable units for future generations.

It’s not an easy fight to solve, but a permanent source of dollars for affordable units is not only the right thing to do on its own merits, it could ease our housing debates going forward.

The California Superbloom — Carrizo Plain Edition
Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Steve Hymon

Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Steve Hymon

It’s hard not to feel like climate change has already hit California. We just finished the driest five-year period in recorded history, but then swung this year to the other extreme, with the wettest year on record, at least in some parts of the state. And the rain continues now into spring, later than typical rainfall patterns.

But the upside of the wild swing (in addition to ending the drought) is an incredible superbloom. I had the opportunity to see the beginning of the peak in Carrizo Plain earlier this month. For those who don’t know it, Carrizo is a national monument located west of Bakersfield over the hill from the Central Valley. It represents so much of what the Central Valley used to be before the advent of agriculture, aqueducts, and development.

But since I’m not a professional-grade photographer, I have to rely on those with much better cameras and skills to capture the area and the current bloom. One of those is Steve Hymon, transit blogger for LA Metro. You can see one of his best pictures of Carrizo Plain’s Soda Lake above, and visit his site for more photos of Carrizo and the surrounding area.

I’ll leave you with one more that captures the spectacle:

Photo by Steve Hymon

Photo by Steve Hymon

While the peak may be fading now, the area is still worth visiting for its one-of-a-kind bird life and endangered species, stark beauty, and San Andreas fault-induced visuals.

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