Thursday, November 8, 2007

Belated Environment Blog

My mom died last December. Today would have been her 78th birthday.

I promised my niece that I would blog on the environment today to make up for my grievous failure to come through on environment blog day (October 15th). Until Sunday I couldn't figure out exactly what to write about--global warming, the water crisis, deforestation, agricultural policy, the problems with petroleum-based products etc. etc. But then on Sunday I opened my San Francisco Chronicle and, in the Magazine, read the articles that set this course.

Three houses--the smallest of them 2,000 square feet, the largest 5,000 square feet. All very modern, open, beautiful gardens. All entirely too big. J and I live in the largest space we've ever had--it's 1,200 square feet. We have a room we use to store the desk, the file cabinet and two bookcases. (We rarely work at the desk, as we use our laptop on the kitchen table or the living room sofa.) This is more than enough space for two people; our flat in Oakland was about 650 square feet.

It wouldn't be so bad if it were only the really, really rich who "needed" all this territory. But the average house is now over 2,000 square feet. And the average household doesn't even have four people. Does the average household really need four bedrooms and three garages? How many rooms never get used? How much of the space is used to store junk that should just be given away? And do people ever think about what would happen if everyone in the world required that much living space? (I will not go on and on about the fact that much of the carbon allocation schemes allow no increase in carbon use by the majority of the world's population, something that majority rightly objects to.)

Oddly enough, raising the price of housing has only exacerbated the problem. As housing close to job centers becomes more expensive, and as more of it is expanded to provide larger living spaces for fewer residents, people are forced to move farther and farther away to find housing they can afford. And as the poor move to the inner-ring suburbs for more affordable housing, the more affluent who cannot afford the urban core leapfrog over those communities to buy ranchettes or houses in the forest. Not only does this place increasing pressure on natural resources, it also increases the carbon costs of commuting. Larger houses distant from work centers are doing nothing to reduce our carbon footprint.

In California the problem is made worse by Proposition 13. One of its (I think) unintended consequences was to make all but the most expensive housing cost-ineffective for local governments. Only the most expensive housing pays for itself in property taxes, so local governments encourage retail (which provides sales taxes) and commercial uses over housing. Communities seek to develop larger houses for richer people whose property taxes will pay the cost of providing services to them. (California's Central Valley, however, now has the problem of a large number of houses affordable to the affluent, but not sufficient affluent to fill them.)

Unfortunately we have little time to address the problem. Southern California is already having serious water problems, and it is only a matter of time before the northern part of the state joins them. Even if rainfall is sufficient, our water system is designed to capture and store snowmelt, not rainwater. (Snowmelt is also more predictable, controllable and easier to manage.) Our transportation system cannot and should not continue to serve more far-flung communities either with freeways or public transit. And even the most energy-efficient 2,000 square foot house uses more energy that an energy-inefficient smaller house.

What is to be done?

1. Communities must develop housing affordable to the workforce. If 20% of a community's workforce is very low income, 20% of its housing should be affordable to very low income people. If the community fails to do so, it would face three fines. The first would equal the value of the mortgage interest deduction to the community. The second fine would equal the depreciation write-off taken by landlords in the community. The third would be a carbon tax on the excess carbon used by workers who had to commute from other communities.

2. Communities must develop effective public transportation systems that serve all communities equally. The Los Angeles bus riders' strike is instructive here. Efficient public transportation must serve both poor and rich communities equally.

3. Excess carbon use taxes would be imposed on excessively large houses--the McMansion tax. And no house, no matter how energy efficient, would receive LEED certification if it provided more than 500 square feet per person. Period.

4. People owning second homes in city cores would face stiff taxes. While this wouldn't prevent the very rich from having city condos, it would limit the merely affluent to a single home.

5. Communities would be discouraged from developing excessive retail space. The United States now has three times more retail space per capita than Britain (our nearest competitor) and ten times more retail space than Europe overall. We do not need to devote that much urban and suburban space to yet another Target. And one Starbuck's every 50 feet--is that really necessary?


C said...

I loved your blog today.It was really nice.

annot8 said...

I skyped my cousin in Toronto this evening, and he said people building in Jamaica are building "palatial" dwellings, but those that can afford them are not really ahead of the market - even if they sell for $1mil, they will need that $1mil to buy their next house.