Son of “Jobs-Housing Balance”

Jobs-housing balance was an obsession.  The typical Southern Californian of working age lived over here and drove to work over there.  They made that round trip every day in their car, and the nation’s worst air pollution was the result.

Officials at organizations like the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) , the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), the City of LA’s planning department, staff to pro-environmental legislators, activists–and me, in my role as Mayor Tom Bradley‘s environmental affairs aide–spent untold hours in the 1980s and 90s talking about how we could fix this, how we could bring jobs and housing together in a more compact urban form.

Regulators had clamped down almost as far as they could on direct sources of smog-producing chemicals and waste. And while old cars were still filthy, the newer autos produced minimal exhaust if properly maintained. But the growth in the numbers of vehicles on the roads outpaced these improvements.

The primary strategy left was to look at “indirect sources,” the aspects of daily life that caused people to start their cars not only to go to work, but to buy a loaf of bread. We envisioned “mixed-use” projects where people could get up in the morning, go downstairs to catch a bus or a trolley to a workplace just a few minutes away.

The ultimate goal was to make the car dispensible.  Need to go to work?  Take a trolley.  Need a loaf of bread?  Walk down the street, or take a bike. The “cold start” of an auto’s engine is disproportionately polluting, so try to build your city to make less of them. And, you had to cut the vehicle miles travelled (VMT).   

Kind of challenging. A challenge that went unmet, as is evident from the growth in housing in the Inland Empire, the excruciatingly long commutes from there to points west… I got to know someone who runs the It’s a Grind coffee shop in Temecula, a fast-growing town in Riverside County, 87 miles from downtown Los Angeles. His barista-ing starts at 5 a.m. When he unlocks his door, a line has already formed outside. That’s a lot of cupholders filled with lattes, and a lot of VMTs.    

Plus, Temecula and all the cities like it are built like suburbs of the 1950s.  The main drag is a long strip mall.  The houses are way up in the hills. It’s how people want to live.  Developers are like any other businesspeople. They respond to demand.  Then mix in the crisis of housing affordability in LA and Orange Counties, the NIMBY policies that ensure even reasonable projects get built slowly if at all…and job-housing balance turned into a bunch of fat three-ring binders sitting on shelves for the mice to eat.

I thought they’d given up.

But now…it’s back. This story in the LA Times describes how another highly polluted region of California, the San Joaquin Valley plans to fight smog by forcing developers to pay air pollution fees for new developments. That’s the stick. The carrot is they could avoid the fees “if their new homes, shopping centers and office complexes were designed in ways that limited automobile use — by locating banks and dry cleaners closer to houses, for example, or linking bicycle trails and walking paths to schools and work centers.”

The San Joaquin Valley is another place like Temecula: The Bay Area’s bedroom.

The California Business Properties Association, among other groups, has joined to fight it under the slogan “Stop the San Joaquin Valley Air Board Tax.”  But they are up against not just the Sierra Club, but also (according to the Times), the region’s farmers. In the zero-sum game of meeting federal air quality regulations, the farmers know that if new housing developments add more smog to the atmosphere, the regulators will crack down harder on the farmers, whose pollution sources are more susceptible to regulation.

In LA, by the way, some of these goals are being achieved, especially in downtown Los Angeles.  And, even more logically, leaders of the Inland Empire are trying to attract more jobs, so that the folks outside It’s A Grind can sleep in, and go to work a few minutes rather than hours from home.  But change on the scale needed to make a real difference in air quality will take decades.

Better to do what San Joaquin Valley is considering, and incorporate a balance of land-uses from the beginning.  The impact on housing affordability can’t be dismissed. But the program as described appears to be based on incentives, not mandates, ensuring that developers–and ultimately homeowners and business owners–will have choices.

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