My View: Building Housing Near Jobs Is Imperative for the Climate Crisis

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

My column yesterday raised a relatively simple concept—the notion that if we are going to take climate change seriously, we need to find ways to put housing closer to jobs.

The data is perfectly clear, as the UCLA Transportation Blog put it in April of this year: “Mile-for-mile, personal vehicles emit a lot of harmful pollutants into the air we breathe. The California Air Resources Board reports the transportation sector (including commuting) is the single largest source of carbon emissions contributing to climate change in the state.”

It therefore stands to reason that our efforts to address climate change will fall flat unless we change land use.

The blog notes, “Walking is the best option, with a carbon footprint of zero!  As two-wheels go, research from the University of Oxford shows choosing a bike over a car just once a day can reduce the average person’s transportation-related emissions by 67%.”

What is not noted of course is that if you live 40 miles from where you work, walking and biking are not normally going to be transportation options.  Certainly I support a public transportation system to replace single-passenger cars, but the most efficient and effective way to resolve this is by putting housing near transit and especially near jobs.

But yesterday’s column got some push back.

One commenter elsewhere noted, “There is no ‘right’ to ‘affordable housing.’  They added, “People should not expect to live where they can’t afford to leave (sic).”  Finally, “If the government is going to ‘enable’ everyone to live everywhere, there’s no private property.”

The commenter is correct, there is no “right” to affordable housing.  I never argued there was.  I don’t favor getting rid of private property.  And frankly this notion that people should expect to live anywhere they want is a red herring.

It’s not what I’m arguing and not even what I’m talking about.

At no point am I arguing for getting rid of private property or centrally planned housing as the commenter alludes to.

Instead, I am arguing that our current system isn’t working well in part because of local government interference making it too difficult and expensive to build housing that people can afford near where they work.

There are consequences for that.

One of the obvious problems of a lack of affordable housing is that California leads the nation in homeless populations.  That means that our housing policy is driving people to the streets which is increasing our costs for crime prevention, substance use disorder, mental illness.  The state is having to spend billions of collars on the backend when it would be far more cost effective to address it on the front end with stable, permanent supportive housing.

Second, even for people who are not housing insecure, this system is problematic because it forces people to live far away from where they work.

There are lots of disadvantages to long commutes—your day is taken up increasingly with not only working but also driving or commuting to work.

And as I pointed out yesterday and a little today, there is the impact on climate change which is clearly going to be one of the biggest global problems of the 21st century.

What we need is a better jobs to housing mix where we have housing near jobs that is affordable to people in that given industry.

People will argue that you can never get a one-to-one ratio.  That’s correct.  There will always be some people who have to commute to work and some who choose to do so.  That’s not what we are talking about fixing.

Imagine, however, that we could reduce the number of people who have to commute by single occupancy vehicle by 30 percent or even 50 percent?  What would just that kind of change mean for GHG and VMT?  That’s what we are talking about.

Not talking about a right to live in any particular place, but rather talking about the need to in general put housing nearer to jobs to reduce commutes.

Part of what I argued yesterday is that the environmental movement has not until recently taken this issue seriously.

As Tim Keller pointed out in his comment, I think this is an unintended consequence of land use policies put forward by people who oppose growth and changes to their existing neighborhoods.

As Keller pointed out, “I think those people DO genuinely believe in sustainability, and in that belief, I think there is opportunity for real progress on these issues.”

I fully agree with that point.  I think there is an opportunity for people who have honest disagreements of opinion to become educated on this particular issue and re-think it.

He added, “As I have said here multiple times… I don’t think that most of the people who oppose Measure J projects are strictly ‘against growth,’ I think they are against ‘bad forms of growth,’ (ie: SPRAWL…) and on that point, many of us ‘yimby’s’ would agree!!!

“The problem is that most of the measure J projects that we get (including the ones currently on the radar) ARE in fact, sprawling in design, and thus, opposition to them is not surprising, or un-earned.”

I think here is where I start disagreeing… a bit… with Tim.  One of the problems that we start getting into is, hey, I’m not against housing, I’m against sprawl.

Now for some people, obviously, sprawl is any housing on the periphery, which isn’t particularly helpful.

On other hand, I think some people more realistically see sprawl as housing that contributes to creating unaffordable homes that eat up open space and agricultural land and do not help to solve the housing crisis.

The danger I see is again… the perfect is the enemy of the good.  We try to micromanage these projects to the point where they can’t be built.

We need to find the sweet spot here where we build reasonable housing projects that can address our most acute housing needs without making the requirements so stringent and onerous that no one can build them.

As I looked at what is proposed here in Davis, I think the totality of the proposals do a fairly good job of adding both affordable and missing middle housing.  Perfect?  No.  Better than the status quo?  Yes.

Can we discuss and tweak the proposals?  Of course.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 Comments

  1. Tim Keller

    Now for some people, obviously, sprawl is any housing on the periphery, which isn’t particularly helpful.
    On other hand, I think some people more realistically see sprawl as housing that contributes to creating unaffordable homes that eat up open space and agricultural land and do not help to solve the housing crisis.
    The danger I see is again… the perfect is the enemy of the good.  We try to micromanage these projects to the point where they can’t be built.

    This is why I see the utility of focusing on the environmental impacts of development as being important.      The “any development is sprawl” opinion held by a former prolific commenter was, of course, not a position that was ever intended to stand up to intellectual scrutiny, no matter how much you tried.   His mind was made up, facts be damned.

    But people like that are quite rare in my estimation.  If you ARE willing to deal with facts, then our shared agreement that sustainability is critically important can all by itself lead us to the best possible outcome, just by continuing to ask questions and following the facts.

    THAT process is what will separate the “actual NIMBY’s” from the people who genuinely have environmental objections to a particular project.   And when we make that seperation, the electorate goes from 60% against to 30% against in my opinion.    It is only when the faux-environmentalism is allowed to dominate the narrative that project get shot down.

    As I looked at what is proposed here in Davis, I think the totality of the proposals do a fairly good job of adding both affordable and missing middle housing.  Perfect?  No.  Better than the status quo?  Yes.
    Can we discuss and tweak the proposals?  Of course.

    We probably disagree about at what point a project goes from “bad” to “acceptable” I think my standards are higher than yours on that point, but we likely agree that there is no harm in trying to improve those proposals, so long as the effort to improve them doesn’t accidentally kill them… everything up to that line is where we probably agree we should be trying to make some ground.

     

  2. Tim Keller

    My column yesterday raised a relatively simple concept—the notion that if we are going to take climate change seriously, we need to find ways to put housing closer to jobs.

    I wanted to add, that THIS premise of todays’ article is something we REALLY need to be focusing on as a community.  “housing near jobs”

    My analysis of our housing / transit earlier this year, I think was pretty clear:  The single family type of housing that is the bulk of the existing proposals is housing that ENCOURAGES “bedroom commuting” OUT of davis.   This is the pattern we see from the available data, and we have no reason to expect it will change in the free market.   It is the opposite of “housing near jobs” and as such, it should not be a priority for us as a city AT ALL

    In my opinion, the ONLY reason we should even consider developing any of this car-centric McMansion type of housing is the extent to which it allows new housing projects to pencil out.   And to that extent, Im actually still not convinced its necessary at any level, because I have yet to see any evidence that building medium density / missing middle type of housing isn’t profitable.

    I suspect that the only reason why the existing projects are comprised primarily of single family housing is “habit” and “FEAR”.   Primarily, fear that a higher density project might not pass a measure J vote because we have a “habit” of expecting that “housing = houses”, and secondarily, fear that if you build multi-family housing you might not find sufficient buyers instantly.

    This is where the work we have to do really comes in, because the gap we are seeing here between these projects and what they COULD be is really just an information gap.   I think we can push density MUCH harder than these existing proposals, AND that density will make for much, much nicer neighborhoods as a result, with the kind of  walkable semi-urban mixed use neighborhoods that people travel to cities like Paris, or Madrid to go experience.

    We could have little portions of our peripheral neighborhtoods be at that kind of density and they would be popular, beautiful, vibrant little communities that would also happen to have the absolute lowest per-capita carbon footprint of any neighborhood in davis.

    But back to the point of the article around “housing near jobs”.  A medium-density neighborhood like this, with robust transit connections to campus would preferentially be inhabited NOT by outbound commuters, but by the local workers and students that my analysis showed we have currently displaced.    That number is on the order of 20,000 people every day, and while many might have other reasons for commuting in other than the lack of affordable housing, it is likely conservative to estimate that at least 6,000 to 8,000 of these local-worker households wouldnt choose to relocate  here if given a chance.

    That means that our potential tenant pool for these multi-family / mixed use / higher density / transit connected / low parking requiement is on the order of that 6,000 to 8,000 units, conservativley.  That is more than ALL of the proposed developments on the city’s docket.   So that last point about “fear that the units might not sell quickly” is also horse-puckey.

    If we ARE going to take our climate crisis seriously,  and if we want to build “housing near jobs” then single family housing needs to be our LAST priority.  All of the avaliable evidence tells us so.

    Im not as quick to believe that what is being offered is the best we can get.  Not when those decisions are being made based on fear.

  3. Richard McCann

    According the combined data from the Census OntheMap and the UC Davis Travel Survey, 67% of Davis residents commute to jobs outside of Davis/UCD, most by single occupancy car. And 69% of those working in Davis/UCD commute from other communities. All of this creates most of the greenhouse gas emissions that dominate the our local pollution.

    The only effective way of reducing those emissions will be getting the jobs/housing balance right. The problem is that the higher paying jobs are out of town so locals who are wealthier commute there, and those working at lower paying local jobs can’t afford to live here so they commute from elsewhere. The answer is (1) to increase the number of higher paying jobs locally so locals will work here and those from outside will have enough income to afford housing here and (2) to increase the housing supply of lower priced homes so that those with lower paying jobs can afford to live here.

  4. Ron Glick

    Your article lacks imagination. While it may be true that housing should be near jobs for work that needs to be away from home, much of the work of the future for an educated workforce, the type of work many UCD grads are being prepared for, will be done from home. Already many people who in the past commuted to offices in Sacramento now work from a home office in Davis. The housing needs of these workers requires more space for a home office and proximity to amenities like good schools, parks, services and gardens.

    As for transportation it never ceases to amaze me that there is no thought to a future of solar powered electric vehicles supporting a suburban lifestyle. It seems to this observer that the people who own land now being processed for development in Davis are way ahead of the detractors who find fault with everything. Maybe its because the developers have actual money at risk so they are more in tune with what the people want to buy than pontificators with no skin in the game.

    1. David Greenwald

      “Your article lacks imagination. While it may be true that housing should be near jobs for work that needs to be away from home, much of the work of the future for an educated workforce, the type of work many UCD grads are being prepared for, will be done from home.”

      I don’t think that’s going to be the case. There was a big move towards working from home during the pandemic, but that trend has largely reversed for a lot of reasons. One example, I took some interns to court yesterday and they got to meet a judge. We were talking about streaming and how it’s a big advantage for attorneys from out of town to make appearancs via zoom. But while that’s true, you really don’t want to do it for things where there are witnesses – prelims and trials. I think that’s true overall. More and more companies have gone back to either hybrid or fully in person. And I see it on the road, the traffic is now back to being as bad as it was pre-pandemic, when even a year ago it was considerably better.

      1. Tim Keller

        I agree.  There is both plastic and elastic deformation of work habits from Covid… there will be a lot more telecommuters now than ever before… but a lot of those jobs are going to end up being back on-site, or hybrid.   There is a level of productivity you get from being in the same building as your co-workers, and being able to bump into them in hallways, have “small conversations” etc that really cannot be replicated in a virtual workplace.   Companies who try to do so are at a competitive dis-advantage.

        As it relates to davis’ housing… yes, people might be better able to live here who might otherwise be working in the Bay area… but I also know people who have jobs in Davis and telecommute from tahoe, or reno… or even further…   so the net effect might be minimal for us.

      2. Ron Glick

        It appears that the general consensus about return to office is wrong. While it may be that managers and office real estate investors want people to return to an office its not true for talented workers who prefer the work life balance working from home provides.

        Many companies have found out the hard way that return to office resulted in higher than expected turnover.

        On my daily walking route around my neighborhood I’ve met three people who work from home. One is an electrical engineer and two are attorney’s. Both are fields that UCD offers degrees in. Another friend works from home for the Feds and goes to San Francisco twice a month by train for one day each time.

        For many work from home  is here to stay. Ask home builders what people want and they will tell you a home office is a priority.

        As for the environment, work from home is lower impact than commuting, and, we should be supporting it. Instead of checking traffic my neighbor checks to see if one of the kids left a toy in the hallway so he doesn’t trip on his way to work.

        1. David Greenwald

          Here’s an article from this week in CNBC, which argues that “90% of companies plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of 2024, according to an Aug. report from Resume Builder, which surveyed 1,000 company leaders.”

          The big issue: “The renewed push to end remote work comes as more CEOs openly acknowledge their disdain for the model, arguing that productivity, collaboration and employee engagement all suffer without the office.”

          At the same time: “Five days a week in the office is dead.”

          The model would be two to three days per week in the office.

          “Employees overwhelmingly prefer hybrid work: About 68% of full-time workers support a hybrid work schedule, working at least one day a week remotely and the other days in an office”

          Link

          Bottom line, we can quibble about all this, but at this point, I think we need to plan housing near jobs.

        2. Richard McCann

          Ron G

          You’re using anecdotal observations to come to general conclusions. It’s likely that analytic professionals (e.g., attorneys, programmers, administrators, etc) will continue to work from home to a large extent (as was already the trend), the employees of organizations that are most likely to set up shop in Davis will lead to go to the business. Those are agricultural and technology research firms, and of course, UCD. More than half of UCD’s workforce commutes in to town/campus. Education will continue to be in person–our experience with remote learning was not a happy one. And most of those commuting to other jobs in town are going to service businesses that are in person. We don’t need to house those who “commute” to state jobs in Sacramento.

        3. Ron Glick

          We don’t get to decide who we house in Davis the market determines that and many high income Sacramento workers will choose Davis as a place to raise a family because of the schools and other desirable amenities.

          The case for this was recently pointed out in an article by Michael Hicks, Economics Professor at Ball State University in a piece titled “Work from home is here to stay.”

          In it he points out that people with professional level educations are paying up for quality of life housing locations and he expects these trends to play out over the next 30 years in what he calls a great migration.

          Here is the  lead to his article:
          “MUNCIE, Ind. – Work from home continues to grow at a reasonably steady pace. In 2019, perhaps 150,000 Hoosiers worked at home at least part time. Today, 633,000 work from home full time, and another 463,000 work from home between one and four days per week. That’s more than 1 million workers, or 31 percent of our workforce. Indiana has two remote workers for every factory worker, and remote work is growing.

          “The national landscape shows an even higher share of remote workers. A full 39.5 percent of households report at least one person working remotely. One in five workers nationwide is fully remote. That is 34 million Americans who are fully remote and 32 million who are partially remote. There are now more remote workers than there were ever baby boomers in the labor force.”

          Those of you who deny the reality of 66million workers that are remote are going to miss the great migratory trend he is observing toward places with amenities like Davis.

          On the other side of the coin I know one family that chose Davis because she works in Vallejo and he works in Sacramento. In a future with remote work options a family like this might live in Sacramento of Vallejo with one or the other family member working from home.

          At any rate, his data compliment my anecdotal evidence from my neighbors.

        4. Walter Shwe

          My own situation and that of a several state employees aligns with Ron Glick’s statistical and antidotal evidence. My employer doesn’t even bother having a physical office anymore, just a P.O. box. The state employees I know are either hybrid or almost completely remote. Employers plan to bring back their employees back to the office, but you know the best laid plans can sometimes go awry. I am not so presumptuous to know what everyone needs or wants in terms of locations and types of housing and employment. The free market is the best known system. Communism sure hasn’t worked.

          [edited]

  5. David Thompson

    David is on the right track here posing the question of the proximity of housing to job locations

    However David’s statement below is too generous,

    As I looked at what is proposed here in Davis, I think the totality of the proposals do a fairly good job of adding both affordable and missing middle housing.  Perfect?  No.  Better than the status quo?  Yes.Can we discuss and tweak the proposals?  Of course.

    From the point of view of affordable housing for the very low income and low income categories I think we have the lowest proportion of those proposed units in decades.

    In Village Farms we have 130 acres of parks and open space and possibly five acres for VLI and LI units.

    Many of the people working in Davis cannot afford most of the single family homes in Davis so the housing offerred at Village Farms will not serve these working in Davis. The poor will work here and have to commute from somewhere else and the rich will live here and commute out of town.

    For examle, my mother in law  is here living with us on hospice, the various nurses and helpers she has live in Marysville, Woodland, Vacaville, West Sacramento, Rancho Cordova but in one year of care none live in Davis.

    The Climate Crisis needs more than a tweak.

     

     

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