What to Do When Environmental and Housing Needs Collide

San Francisco is making headlines for its new height restrictions limiting development along their waterfront, which some (including the Sierra Club) argue is an environmentally-conscious decision. The passage of Proposition B means that voters must approve any proposed project seeking to build higher than the limit. Opponents of the referendum have denounced it as “ballot-box planning” specifically meant to give voters the right to oppose any development which they don’t like, regardless of the height restriction issue or voter knowledge of project details and impacts. Some believe that projects that would create new affordable housing units, or would generate significant revenues to reinvest into affordable housing elsewhere in the city, will specifically be targeted for “no” votes, further limiting housing supply and driving up housing costs in an already expensive market. This begs an important question around reconciling environmental and housing needs: how do you promote the expansion of affordable housing supply within environmentally-sensitive places?

Some developments really can have negative environmental impacts, particularly in the case where existing infrastructure will not adequately support it.  However, environmental issues are also used sometimes to disguise other reasons for opposition to affordable housing.

Giving voters the chance to have a final say on proposed projects is one way to overcome trust issues: there is healthy skepticism that money (wielded by developers) unduly influences local development approvals (by elected officials and planners). But giving such power to the voting public also creates new problems. It (intentionally) increases the risk and costs associated with development, further limiting supply and driving up land prices and housing costs even more. It also assumes that the voting public acting to preserve its own self-interest is more democratic and just than existing policies and planning processes, and that voters will represent the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized residents, both past and future. These assumptions are questionable, particularly if voters are homeowners fighting to preserve their home values (which in this case are helped, no doubt, by bay front views) at the expense of blocking affordable housing development.

So are there more democratic, proactive ways to address both environmental and housing supply concerns, and hold representatives and developers accountable for coming up with collaborative, creative solutions to both problems? I think there are several:

Reconsider density through local participatory planning. Increasing density is a logical way to bring down housing costs in many (but is probably not enough in all) markets with strong demand and lagging or limited supply. But many homeowners want their housing values to increase, and environmentalists can take a no-development stance. A better case needs to be made for the environmental and social benefits of allowing for denser housing development. A transparent, participatory planning process can help assess housing needs from the perspective of current residents as well as those who cannot afford existing housing prices.

Even in environmentally-challenging circumstances, Connecticut towns are finding ways to increase density in ways beneficial to their workforce, young professionals, and aging populations in need of more affordable housing options, while preserving open space and natural resources. A critical component to the state’s Incentive Housing Zone program is helping towns plan for future housing needs and identify appropriate sites in their town centers and near transit that would be best suited for lower-cost, higher density development (see my prior post here on the program details and some accomplishments to date). To access state financial assistance, towns must target increasing density within their identified zones.

Build trust among those who are common enemies. About a month ago, the HOMEConnecticut campaign partnered with the Connecticut Chapter of the American Planning Association to host a speed dating event between towns interested in affordable housing development—many of them located on the Long Island Sound in environmentally-sensitive areas with water and sewage utility constraints—and developers interested in working with the towns to build higher-density, more affordable units. This event helps turn what has been a conflict-based, reactive system of developers proposing projects and towns fighting against them  into a more proactive one of town recruitment of developers willing to target the sites identified by the town in return for increased development density allowable through the town’s modified zoning.

Almost 25 percent (39) of Connecticut’s municipalities sent at least one representative to the event, representing urban, suburban, and rural communities. They came equipped to share basic information a developer might want to know, thanks to the Partnership for Strong Communities, which prepared demographic trends and housing market data. In addition, towns filled out a survey on their community needs, development preferences, existing incentives, and details of targeted sites. Most towns supplemented this information with brochures and maps, while some brought completed concept plans and market studies.

Developers specializing in affordable housing came from as far away as New York and Boston to learn about this renewed development commitment in the state that has averaged the lowest rate of building permits issued per capita in the entire country for over the past 10 years.

In general, reaction to the event has been overwhelmingly positive from all stakeholders. Some towns and developers have also followed up with a second “date” already, and there is broad interest across the state in hosting others.

Reassess state regulations that may be unnecessarily hindering local affordable housing supply. In Connecticut, some have realized that state standards on onsite wastewater regulations may be unnecessarily triggering time-consuming and expensive reviews and preventing higher-density affordable housing projects, when lower standards may work just as effectively as they do in neighboring Massachusetts. This issue is currently being studied.

In the end, reconsidering needs and regulations at the local and state level in a way that balances environmental concerns and affordable housing makes sense for many reasons. It lessens development risk, and creates more opportunities for local innovation and control. It can be more democratic in assessing impacts not just on current voters, but on those who do not or cannot vote, and residents currently shut out of the local market. Finally, it builds trust by bringing officials, planners, the public, and developers together in a collaborative effort to expand affordable housing supply in an environmentally-conscious manner.

*Photo Caption: David Fink, Policy Director at the Partnership for Stronger Communities, rings the bell at The Lyceum in Hartford, Conn., at the speed dating event to tell “daters” it is time to move on to the next prospective partner. (Photo credit: Corianne Scally)

Corianne Payton Scally is a principal research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute where she explores affordable housing and community development policy and practice from large cities to rural towns.


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