Should there be carbon penalties for ‘no growth’ communities?

The Yurok tribe's carbon offset project encompasses thousands of acres of Douglas fir and mixed hardwood forest near the Klamath River in Northern California.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Imagine having to plant a few hundred trees near the Oregon border or handing over all the money in your wallet next time your city council votes down a housing project.

That is one of the ideas coming out of a new report from the California Apartment Assn., which represents residential property owners.

The report suggests rewarding communities that build housing near jobs and transportation, but penalizing suburban sprawl by linking it to California climate change legislation.


Communities that turn down housing projects would pay a fine for, presumably, making it harder for people who work in their community to live there. Climate change is factored in because, in most cases, commuting can harm the environment by releasing more carbon emissions.

Another suggestion in the report is to penalize the communities by linking failure to build new housing to carbon offsets, credits given in lieu of offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. One way the state allows for that is reforestation protocols, or planting trees under certain conditions.

The Sacramento-based association has 13,000 members. The report it released last week came out of a housing forum it held in September attended by politicians, unions, economists and housing advocacy groups.

Robert Wassmer, director of Cal State Sacramento’s urban land development program, said it is too easy for cities to turn down housing projects for low-income residents.

“Local governments will say they can’t possibly approve housing because there is too much political resistance and it is too big of a cost,” he said. “Right now, they can say that without putting any dollars forward.”

Wassmer, who attended the forum, said penalizing communities that deny new projects would give politicians cover to approve such projects.


In the report, the association repeatedly pushes against the idea of rent-control measures, saying they would only exacerbate the problem. Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Thousand Oaks and San Jose are among the California cities that already have rent control.

The association said it produced the report because, it says, more apartments and housing are needed in California to reduce costs for renters and buyers. It estimates an additional 100,000 homes need to be built each year.

Some of the other ideas listed in the report:

  • Revisit Gov. Jerry Brown’s “by right” proposal, which would have approved developments without California’s stringent review process as long as the development set aside at least 20% of units for low-income residents. If the development would be near a transit stop, it could be quickly approved as long as 10% of units are for low-income renters. The proposal was strongly opposed by a coalition of environmental and labor groups.
  • Change the California Environmental Quality Act. The association says the law is being used to block “sensible development,” such as new homes near transportation and jobs. One suggestion was to consider an appeals process.
  • Promote urban infill. The association suggests increasing taxes on landowners who don’t sell valuable lots that could be used for housing.

Wassmer acknowledged it might not be in some communities’ best interests to approve housing, but said it is beneficial at the regional and state level.

“This all has to come from the governor,” he said. “He tried the more collaborative, cooperative approach with the by-right [proposal], but that didn’t go anywhere. Now he needs to think about using executive power.”



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