Homes under construction
New homes under construction in Carlsbad. File photo by REUTERS/Mike Blake

During his campaign for Governor, Gavin Newsom described California’s housing crises as the State’s biggest challenge. He called for the construction of 500,000 new homes per year, while vowing to strengthen greenhouse gas regulations.

So far, with respect to housing, little has happened.  Now his Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, is wading into a San Diego legal case with a position that will hurt the Governor’s efforts with respect to both policies: it will effectively ban the building of most new single-family homes in San Diego County and, perhaps surprisingly, also lead to higher emission of GHGs.

Last year, San Diego Judge Timothy Taylor held that the use of offsets to reduce the carbon footprint from development is only permissible if the offsets are generated in San Diego County. This ruling is at odds with the County’s General Plan, which places no geographic limits on where GHG reductions must occur.

Now, Becerra is aggressively supporting Taylor’s ruling in the Appellate Court.

Taylor’s ruling ignores the scientific truth that GHGs emanating anywhere in the world are equally as damaging, and projects to reduce them anywhere in the world equally as beneficial. The California Supreme Court, in a 2015 ruling, made this clear, stating, “the fact that… greenhouse gases, once released into the atmosphere, are not contained in the local area of their emission means that the impacts to be evaluated are also global rather than local.”

As the plaintiffs in the case know, there are NO carbon offsets available in San Diego County. If Taylor’s ruling is upheld, most of the allowable development will be million-dollar estates and small multi-family units, which do nothing for middle-class families.

Over the past ten years San Diego County built less than one-third of the homes the state required be built. In typical Sacramento fashion, the state is simultaneously demanding the county provide housing while supporting policy changes that make it impossible to do so.

Regulators and developers in the county strive to support and build new communities with a “net-zero” carbon footprint. Developers achieve this by implementing all available “on-the-ground” opportunities to reduce emissions, and then buying offsets for the remaining impact. Even with best industry practices, it is impossible to build a new home with zero-net emissions if the homeowner has a car; the only way to get to zero is through offsets.

The plaintiffs in the Taylor case know that if cars are allowed, net-zero is impossible without offsets. This fits their view of how we all should live: in units concentrated within existing cities that provide no support for cars.

In the real world, many families want to live in a home with a yard, and, yes, they want a car. For approximately 60,000 people who work in San Diego County but could not find a home, this means living in Riverside County, 50 miles north of where most of the housing is planned. These workers commute 100 extra miles per day just getting to and from the very area they could live in if this housing existed, adding 1.3 billion vehicle miles traveled and over 400,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year. This is more than three times the cumulative reductions of all mitigation measures in the County’s Climate Action Plan for 2020.

California’s environmental laws require the burdens of environmental regulation not be unfairly placed on lower-income residents. The county’s inability to build enough homes, which will become permanent policy if Taylor’s ruling is upheld, does just that. Wealthy San Diego residents can live in the county near their jobs; while lower- and middle-income folks, including many first-time buyers, must live in homes that are miles away and spend an extra two hours or more per-day sitting in traffic.

As is too often the case with well-meaning regulation, efforts to reduce vehicle miles and GHG emissions through preventing new home construction have had just the opposite effect. Lack of housing has forced thousands of families to move where homes are available, leading to more driving and more GHG emissions. Taylor’s ruling, if upheld, will ensure this destructive policy becomes permanent for our county.

San Diego County is not unique. These same facts exist throughout the state. That’s why most California county governments are opposed to Taylor’s ruling.

The Taylor case impacts two of the Governor’s favorite policy goals: housing and greenhouse gases. Just not in the way his Attorney General thinks.

Gary London is a San Diego-based economist. Rich Volker is CEO of Save Our Rural Economy, an advocacy group in San Diego County.