Housing solutions are climate solutions

I have news for my fellow card-carrying climate advocates in Washington: If you are standing in the way of policies that allow more homes in our cities, it’s time to turn in your environmentalist bona fides.  

Seriously. If you’re blocking infill housing, you might as well start burning coal in your yard. Land-use rules determine what kinds of housing cities allow and where people can afford to live — major drivers of oil consumption. Reforming those rules to increase urban housing supply is a climate imperative.

If we’re serious about climate change, clean air, clean water — about protecting vulnerable salmon runs and the health of Puget Sound — then we have to get real about affordability in our job centers. Conservation issues dear to your hearts hinge on addressing our housing shortage. It’s time to get on board with the many good housing bills currently before our state Legislature: Bills that make sure we can have the housing we need close to the jobs, transit, schools and opportunities in Washington’s cities.  

The equation is simple: When we prohibit the housing we need inside our cities, we promote the steady, destructive creep of development outside our cities; we feed sprawl. And sprawl requires infrastructure that shackles us to fossil fuels, just as we’re beginning to get free. In Washington, transportation is the largest source of global warming pollution. And toxic runoff from traffic on our roads is the biggest water polluter in the Puget Sound area.  

Don’t take my word for it. Researchers with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, found that for the 700 cities they studied, “infill housing — that is, homes built in existing urban areas, near transit, jobs and services — can reduce greenhouse gas pollution more effectively than any other option.” And a recent mapping project by The New York Times reveals that “households in denser neighborhoods close to city centers tend to be responsible for fewer planet-warming greenhouse gasses.” 

Housing affordability is the epitome of thinking globally and acting locally. Last April, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasized that one of the most effective ways to cut cities’ climate pollution is to halt sprawl by promoting infill housing in cities. That means reversing prevalent local bans on modest housing such as accessory dwellings, duplexes and apartments.

It’s about global carbon emissions, but it’s also about fairness. Air pollution and climate disruption disproportionately harm Washington’s communities of color — yet another reminder that climate burdens fall hardest on those least responsible for the damage. These are often the same community members whose grandparents were redlined from homeownership and wealth-building opportunities. Climate justice and housing justice go hand in hand. 

Local zoning laws in most of our cities today represent a de facto mandate for harm: More sprawl, more pollution, more driving, and limits on anything but the most expensive and resource-intensive housing. If your goal is to maximize oil-industry profits, these policies work fine. For the rest of us, they’re a disaster.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We set zoning rules; we can reset them. We can curb sprawl. We can protect mixed-income communities. We can have vibrant, transit-rich, bike- and pedestrian-safe neighborhoods, places that are great to live in, convenient and accessible. We know how: Allow middle housing, nix parking mandates, permit backyard cottages and lot splitting, and boost transit-oriented development. These simple, modest land use changes add up to real homes, enough to make a significant dent in the shortage. Electric vehicles will help us reduce emissions from transportation too, but they’re no substitute for affordable housing and land use reforms that allow people to drive less. 

Right now, state leaders in both parties are taking on our housing shortage with urgency. They have a powerful left-right coalition behind them. Climate and environmental advocates should add our voices. At the very least we should stop putting up barriers to the housing our people and our climate need.  

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