May 1, 2003 - From the May, 2003 issue

Sierra Club Sponsors Aggressive Legislation Promoting Growth Zones & Affordable Housing

Asm. Wiggins (D-Sonoma) recently introduced AB 1268, which would mandate cities to define urban smart growth zones and to build 20-percent of new housing units as affordable. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Bill Allayaud, California State Legislative Director for the Sierra Club-one of the bill's sponsors-in which he discusses the mechanics of the bill and its odds for passing.

Bill, let's begin with a discussion of AB1268 which was recently in the appropriations committee. The bill attempts, say its authors, to curb sprawl, promote better planning and increase the availability of affordable housing in California. Can you touch upon the specifics of the bill? Give us its current status and how it evolved.

AB 1268 actually has two major components. One is that every city and county shall establish growth zones that show where their anticipated 20-year growth shall be. The other major component is to require these same local governments to have an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which means a certain percentage of all new units built shall be affordable to very low and low-income people. Both sides of the bill are controversial, but we feel both sides are needed.

The bill has evolved from the growing concern over the last few years about traffic, air quality, and quality of life. It's pretty obvious that the state's getting crowded, that we're spreading out onto farmland and eating up habitat and open space at an alarming rate. We're bumping up against limits on water, fresh air and farmland. This bill isn't meant to address all of these problems, but it's meant to address land use patterns and affordable housing, which we feel are the two primary issues.

The Sierra Club renewed and updated its growth management guidelines a couple years ago and it has some strong components that directly relate to this bill. We think all cities ought to have urban growth boundaries, a clear demarcation between what will be developed and what will be kept as open space. In the inner cities, we're in favor of densification, intensifying uses, redevelopment-which includes cleaning up brownfields-working with inner-city areas to increase urban park opportunities and providing more affordable housing. As we move out toward the edges of these growth zones, the consumer and homebuyer and renter ought to be given a choice of housing opportunities beyond the $400,000 single family home on a relatively large lot. We think the marketplace isn't really providing many or creative options today.

You mention the two central objectives of the bill. Is there a necessary link between building more affordable housing and the preservation or creation of more open space?

The link isn't obvious. It's not like, if you do an urban growth boundary, you better look at affordable housing, too. We just felt that the two go hand-in-hand. If you are going to talk about doing smart growth, then you ought to be talking about affordable housing as well. We feel the need to work with some of our nontraditional interest groups that have similar interests within this urban area. In this case, it's MALDEF, who have affordable housing near the top of their list. Although affordable housing isn't the highest for the Sierra Club, our leadership felt strongly enough about it to include inclusionary zoning in our new growth management guidelines.

The state needs to be bolder when it comes to affordable housing. Just handing out numbers to cities, saying you should provide this amount and then we'll check back once in awhile hasn't been working very well. It's time for the state to step it up and say you need to do this affordable housing. But, at the same time, we don't think just having an open-ended growth area makes sense either. Although these things aren't naturally linked, if you think about it, they are. If we're going to concentrate development where existing services are, housing is a big part of that. The jobs-housing balance and vehicle miles traveled are all linked to housing. And, when looking at the housing issue, affordability jumps out at you. That's why we put the two together in this one bill.

In a post-Prop 13 environment, cities often complain that housing of any kind has become a big money loser for them. How will requiring a 20% affordable component in all housing developments be received by local governments? What unintended impacts can you foresee?

In one respect, it's sort of a blunt instrument. But, we feel that it may be necessary. Other market mechanisms don't seem to be working these days and the federal government hasn't facilitated much affordable housing since the early 80's. So, while the mandate is blunt, before things become desperate for many of California's citizens we ought to be bold at this stage.

The function of the growth boundaries is to confine new development to where there are existing services immediately adjacent to it. That's one of the ideas in this bill, you have to do an analysis of your ability to provide the infrastructure. Part of the cost of housing is in fees for hookups and water and roads and schools-it is clear, and has been established in the literature for over 30 years, that sprawl costs taxpayers and homebuyers more.

Compact development has been shown to cost the municipality less-people use less water per acre, there's fewer vehicle miles traveled, and schools, transit and other utilities become more cost effective with more compact development. You could say that we might be increasing market rate housing costs a little bit to subsidize affordable housing. But, on the other hand, that's balanced by doing more compact, and sometimes higher density, developments. It will save money per unit in the market rate units as well as, of course, any unit built that are affordable.

From where you sit in Sacramento and at the Sierra Club, where is the leadership coming from to drive or promote smart growth in the state? Who's coordinating the transportation and land use planning necessary to combat sprawl and increase mobility? Who should be providing this leadership if there is too little now?

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I think it's pretty clear that there hasn't been a lot of leadership in this area. If you go back to the early 70's, we have a 30-year history of conferences and symposiums on growth. It wasn't called smart growth back then, but it was the same issues of-what are we going to do about sprawl? And yet, we've had a strong sprawl pattern for several decades. It's interesting to note that a top reason people want to be out there (in outlaying suburban areas) is because they perceive that the schools are better. And so, if we aren't doing a good job in our inner-city schools, or our older suburban area schools, of keeping them up to date and keeping infrastructure renewed around them, then eventually those new schools are going to look mighty tempting to people.

The other thing is that often consumers aren't given a choice. There are examples in this state and other states where small lot subdivisions are available with common open space, walkable neighborhoods with local services-and the homes sell like hotcakes. I don't see much of that in California.

True urban projects, like in downtown Sacramento, do sell really fast. But in terms of designing new layouts, I don't think you see a lot of choice given to the consumer. What I'm getting at here is the leadership hasn't been there from the developer and homebuilders either to provide the more innovative structures like smaller neighborhoods, higher densities, smaller backyards, common open space, and front porches. In other words, where is the New Urbanism that's talked about a lot at these symposiums and conferences? The administration of the State of California has not provided this leadership either really has been MIA on this action for a long time.

The Sierra Club was heartened last fall when the Governor said that he wants to address this growth issue in his second term. Since then, we haven't seen much leadership from him. But, we hope if we can get some bills to his desk that we will see his leadership. We noted that he signed AB 857 last year, which was a good start. We're hoping that if we can get him a bill like AB 1268, that he'd sign it, agreeing that the State needs to make a bold statement on growth and affordable housing.

Who is lining up against AB 1268 and what are the arguments in opposition?

The opposition is who you would probably expect-the California Building Industry Association, the California Association of Realtors, and the California Business Properties Association. The League of Cities also has heartburn over this bill because they feel like it's a mandate from the state without any explicit funding.

I'm challenging the opponents of the bill to look closely at the bill rather than having a knee-jerk response. It's not a no-growth bill. It's not a slow-growth bill. It's just a smart growth bill. It says do the growth in a more compact area with known boundaries and show you can afford to do infrastructure over this 20-year period. In fact, that's why we labeled the concept "growth zones" and not an urban growth boundary. It's not meant to be a no growth bill, it's supposed to be a smart growth bill.

We're hoping that these groups will give it a fair chance and negotiate with us so that we can get to the governor. In the long run, it's good for all Californians. There are many good examples around the state where this has worked. Santa Cruz County passed Measure J in 1978 and it seems to be working quite well. It's kept a strong rural area with farming, habitats are protected, the cities within the County have grown, the county growth has been concentrated between existing urban areas and includes an inclusionary zoning component also. So, you've got affordable housing built in an area where median housing prices are upwards of $500,000.

Lastly, what is the status of AB 1268; what do you see as both its timeline and odds for it getting to the governor's desk?

The bill has passed the Assembly Local Government Committee and it was heard in Assembly Appropriations. Appropriations moved it to the suspense file, which is essentially a holding pen for hundreds of bills that have any fiscal impact at all. The Appropriations Committee is going to have to act on it before May 30 and we're optimistic that it's going to get out of Appropriations and move on to the Assembly floor. We expect a very tough fight on the floor. The moderate, or business Democratic Caucus, where many of the swing votes are, are usually sympathetic to the building industry's concerns and viewpoint. But, we also know that they are conflicted because a lot of them are sympathetic to what environmental groups like the Sierra Club are saying, too. It is also their own constituency who are telling them more and more about their concerns with quality of life, including air quality, traffic congestion, and affordability of housing.

If we can get this to the floor, and I think we will, it will be interesting to see how they want to vote on this. Before that floor vote, you can expect some negotiations to take place, led by Assemblywoman Wiggins, and with the Sierra Club and MALDEF sitting down and seeing what would be acceptable to the opponents. We're hoping that it is not just any mention of growth boundaries or inclusionary zoning that makes the bill unacceptable to the building/development community.

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