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CCRE Presents: Climate Change Impacts on CA Housing

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Presented September 8, 2021

Our panel of experts will discuss how the future of housing development must not only adapt to meet the state’s climate goals but also ensure the safety of residents and equitable greenhouse gas reduction. Furthermore, as new residential development faces new levels of climate-related risks both financially and regarding insurability, discussants will explore how market and government incentives may need to shape future development plans that affect how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded and built. Learn from this distinguished panel of experts about how California can remain a leader on climate change issues, and how solving the climate crisis is inseparable from solving the housing crisis


Moderated by Joel Singer, CEO, C.A.R.

Joel Singer


Craig Adelman
Craig Adelman
Senior Principal
LeSar Development Consultants
Amy Bach
Amy Bach 
Executive Director
United Policyholders
Katharine Burgess
Katharine Burgess
Vice President, Land Use and Development
Smart Growth America
Nuin-Tara Key
Nuin-Tara Key
Deputy Director for Climate Resilience
Governor's Office of Planning and Research



Key Takeaways

The Future of Development with Climate Implications:

Panelists noted that alarm bells have been ringing for quite some time, and from a policy perspective, the information we know about the climate is not new. Amy Back added that there are economic signals that increasingly cannot be ignored and there will be added pressure to avoid living in such vulnerable areas because of the unrealistic risks they pose for safety and insurability.  

Craig Adelman agreed that the state is truly beginning to feel the impacts of what has long been predicted from climate change. While policies like SB 375 were a groundbreaking solution that set a standard to align land use and transportation policies to address our climate changes proactively, as we’ve endured heightened levels of wildfires, drought, etc. that is now affecting existing housing, we are seeing strong reaction that should hopefully elevate our response accordingly. Nuin-Tara Key agreed that while state policies have been anticipating climate impacts for some time, our understanding of the science continues to improve and we must pursue actionable insights with great urgency and commit to ambitious solutions so that we’re adapting to the impacts we’re seeing. She added we still have a window of opportunity to reduce emissions and the overall negative impacts of climate change on our life, which will require an all-government approach: transportation, energy, housing, etc. so that all these components are making the right decisions to increase resilience in our communities. 

Katharine Burgess noted that development under climate change impacts will also affect migration patterns domestically; while we’ve already seen COVID-19 affecting people’s movements, she cautioned that we need to examine how policy can encourage greater density and make it more attractive and preferred for people to reduce development pressure on areas that are a greater risk.

Adapting with Urgency to Climate Change Issues:

As the state tries to adapt to this challenge, Amy suggested establishing fire risk reduction standards that can be taught to property owners so that structures are less likely to burn, which will allow us to move the needle in a positive fashion. She also suggested that the insurance industry can and should use its leverage to incentivize risk reduction; i.e. we want to reward people for undertaking improvements that reduce risk but to do so we must establish applicable standards. 

Craig agreed that insurance is one of the key ways to align public policy goals with private sector actions. He added that land use planning is also deeply important to help direct growth in an environmentally sustainable way as we try to adapt to this challenge; therefore, the public and private sectors need to be aligned and work together so that they are rowing in the same direction. Given that climate change is not the state’s only challenge, Craig also noted that we need to examine opportunities for overlapping incentives so that the state can be even more effective to address multiple policy needs. 
Consumer Preferences VS. Climate Challenges

Housing affordability is a key driver for so much development and home purchases in the outer exurbs, has pushed housing into more dangerous zones, according to Katharine. At the same time, she added, we’re seeing so much demand for walkable urban areas—demand that far exceeds supply; therefore, there are policy questions that need to be answered about how to successfully deliver more affordable housing that meets environmental concerns and nudges consumers toward denser housing options. For example, Katharine noted we need to examine how we can satisfy interest in green space in a high density environment with shared amenities and the affordability question pervades everything and exacerbates so many social vulnerabilities.

Nuin-Tara that as government tries to shape consumer preferences for better climate outcomes, we incentives that complement and drive the market without letting the bottom fall out for regular people, which has been a focus of her agency’s work. The state must send market signals but also making sure that communities are not left behind; for example, we need to be mindful that changes in insurance coverage can affect affordability and create long term economic challenges for many Californians. As the climate changes, we need to tease out the demand for different housing and the drivers – such as people leaving certain regions for more affordability higher risk areas prone to fires.

Ultimately, people still want to live in California, Craig posited, and when it comes to housing and consumer choices, we must focus much more on VMT (vehicle miles traveled) as the quintessential climate driver; VMT illustrates that our building practices do have climate impacts related to transportation patterns and commutes. 
Potential Policy Changes:

Panelists considered policy changes or solutions that they would wish for to have the most impact on improving housing and environmental outcomes. Amy suggested we need to quit pointing fingers of blame and the state needs more funding for fire prevention not just fire suppression, as well as more collaborative cross-sector work streams to reduce risk and impacts of climate change.

Craig noted that he was strongly in favor of the policy solutions outlined in Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB50 (which did not pass the legislature). This bill would have created statewide incentives to allow more development near transit corridors and end exclusionary zoning. Craig added that allowing more density on single-family lots is also a step in the right direction.

Development Factors to Consider: 

Panelists considered the importance of driving regional coordination and hitting housing targets set by the state to ensure local planning is increasing supply in a way that reflects local concerns but also environmental factors. Nuin-Tara added that the state has been providing many resources to local governments to get a better handle on these questions and ensure that local land-use planning occurs in a sustainable way; she pointed to the success of the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities (AHSC) program as a successful model the state has adopted to invest funding across the state in unique ways to spur sustainable actions at the local level. AHSC has accelerated implementation and proof of concepts that have produced results

Another factor the panel discussed is water supply issues and how this may hamper future development and restrain growth. Craig noted that the state will have to prioritize the best use of water among residential, commercial and agricultural needs because water is an increasingly scarce resource and we need new technological approaches to retaining as much water as we can. Nuin-Tara added that we need to take an approach that considers all risks from all sides so that communities are prepared to balance needs and pressures and ideally not having to always play catch-up. Now more than ever is the time for the state to advance long term investments and long term building of resilience because more extreme droughts lie in our state’s future.  

Craig added that developers seek certainty to mitigate risk and they are trying to find the balance between consumer preferences and sustainable standards; however, given affordability concerns, there is fine line to walk when it comes to compliance with regulatory requirements and reducing costs of housing because regulations increase the cost of units. Where we develop, i.e. siting, is the primary driver of cost, so the state faces an existential challenge when it comes to housing because it is very hard to achieve transit friendly, sustainably designed housing and also dramatically cut costs to achieve affordability. 

Amy noted that ideally homeowners can find opportunities to adopt proven solutions on items like roofing, venting; double-pane windows, etc. as preventive ways to stop fire damage but that the state can do more to adapt building code for existing home on fire standards. 

Regulatory environment:

To continue the theme of certainty for development, Craig added that land use approvals operate on a discretionary basis in the state which means they are too finicky and don’t allow for greater development. Katharine added that the state will also need to do more on retrofits and rebuilding existing units for sustainability since that is far more difficult than brand new sustainable design and regulations should consider how to incentivize home buyers to make different location choices. 

Amy added that among the positive regulation changes is that if you lose your home in a wildfire and you have replacement value insurance, then the insurance company has to tender that amount to you regardless of whether you build the house in that same location; people can now take their insurance money and replace home somewhere else.

Nuin-Tara concluded that we need to meet the demands of the moment with the right pace of urgency, which all sectors are trying to figure out. While regulatory relief can produce results, she added that we need to differentiate between market vs regulatory issues so that we don’t single out just regulations as the sole cause of deterrence given the climate realities the state must plan for with regulations as an important tool. 


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