(Re-)Constructing the Sustainable City: Toward A Green Affordable Housing Model for Los Angeles

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(Re-)Constructing the Sustainable City: Toward A Green Affordable Housing Model for Los Angeles Mary Jane Boltz Senior Comprehensive Thesis Urban and Environmental Policy Occidental College May 2008 Boltz
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(Re-)Constructing the Sustainable City: Toward A Green Affordable Housing Model for Los Angeles Mary Jane Boltz Senior Comprehensive Thesis Urban and Environmental Policy Occidental College May 2008 Boltz 2 TABLE OF CONTENTS Preface 3 Introduction.5 I. What Do We Mean By Sustainability?...8 II. The Sustainable City: Impossible Dream or Attainable Goal?...11 III. The Benefits (and Elements) of Green Affordable Housing..16 IV. Recent Advances in Green Affordable Housing Development.. 24 V. Barriers to the Movement to Make Green Affordable Housing Standard Practice.32 VI. Toward Green Affordable Housing as Standard Practice: Some Recommendations Conclusions...54 Bibliography.55 Appendices Boltz 3 PREFACE The multiple meanings implicit in this paper s title (Re-)Constructing the Sustainable City: Toward a Green Affordable Housing Model for Los Angeles are perhaps easily understood (pun and all). I d nonetheless like to devote a little space to making explicit what I mean by the title and in particular, (Re-)Constructing. As many scholars are quick to point out, the city (whether defined as a political jurisdiction, a center of commerce, a collection of man-made structures, and/or a dense and diverse concentration of human capital) has arguably never been ecologically sustainable that is to say, it has never been much concerned with sustaining the fragile human support systems on which it depends. 1 On the contrary, it has exploited, depleted, and polluted them post haste. Today more than ever, the city depends on resources mined and goods manufactured well outside its borders and then transported by train, plane, boat and truck inside. In this way disproportionately consuming the world s resources, cities (or more precisely, city-dwellers) also create the bulk of the world s waste waste which is then expelled from these city to the periphery (whether the city s physical periphery or Immanuel Wallerstein s notion of the global periphery). In many cases, in fact, this waste is often externalized to the same place from whence the original resources came. 2 Though I grapple with the question, Is there such a thing as a sustainable city? or, for my purposes, Does a city have the potential to be considerably more sustainable? in Chapter 2, I want to acknowledge here and now that I do not believe there has heretofore existed a sustainable city in the strongest sense of the term. Given this, the Re-Constructing of the title refers not to the literal re-making of the sustainable city (since it has never been constructed to start), but to my attempt to re-imagine the concept of the (potential) sustainable city. How, exactly, do I envision the sustainable city? To answer this I must first clarify what I mean by sustainable. In Chapter 1, I trace the origins and evolution of the terms, sustainability, and sustainable development up through the emergence of the 3 E s understanding of sustainability, so named for its balanced incorporation of ecological, economic, and (social) equity goals. It is the holistic nature of this 3 E s view of 1 These include climate, agriculture, forestry, and industry, and the myriad systems upon which these systems, in turn, depend. 2 See recent news articles on American paper waste mainly from boxes containing Chinese goods being boated back to China to be recycled and re-sold to the American market (Barboza, David, Blazing A Paper Trail, 1). Notably, though, this is almost sustainable when compared to the situation of the developed world s electronic waste being disposed of in the underdeveloped world landfills or melted down to its composite parts, introducing untold threats to human health, (Carroll, Chris, High-Tech Trash, 1-8). Boltz 4 sustainability that makes it, for me, the most meaningful and compelling approach to sustainability in existence today. After providing a brief background of affordable housing in the Introduction, I examine in Chapter 3 the concept and practice of so-called green affordable housing in order to demonstrate how it is easily situated within this 3 E s framework, at once satisfying goals of increased social, economic, and environmental sustainability. My intention here is not only to demonstrate that green affordable housing is, at its core, concerned with producing a more holistic sustainability, but to propose that the city (or, for my purposes, the metropolitan region) that is to borrow the term of Kent Portney, author of Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously serious about becoming more sustainable would do no less than embrace a robust model of green affordable housing. Based on this belief, Chapters 4 and 5 lay out the current landscape of green affordable housing in Los Angeles County, focusing on, in turn, recent advances in and persisting barriers to the movement to make green building the standard practice of the region s affordable housing development. With the aim of understanding how we, as green affordable housing advocates, may help to bring about a more green and affordable and in a word, sustainable city, Chapter 6 advances specific recommendations to the various members of the Los Angeles green affordable housing community as to how each may advance the goals of the movement. And finally, Conclusions briefly imagines the future of sustainability projects in Los Angeles. Boltz 5 INTRODUCTION Personal Background My own introduction to the world of affordable housing came two years ago in the form of a summer internship with a Los Angeles tenants rights organization called the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES). This great opportunity and what turned out to be an admittedly powerful experience for me was provided through Occidental College s Urban and Environmental Policy Department and funded by grants from the Washington Mutual Bank and Union Bank of California Foundations. That summer, the bulk of my work was devoted to halting the displacement of tenants and permanent loss of rent-controlled apartments due to the sharp increase in condo conversions and demolitions. Though California s Ellis Act permits such activity to allow landlords to exit the rental business, at the time, landlords had seemingly turned en masse to conversions and demolitions as a means to evict long-time tenants from rent-controlled apartments in order to create for-sale luxury dwellings. To alert affected tenants to landlord plans and urge their help in passing a temporary citywide moratorium on conversions and demolitions, I canvassed with fellow organizers at rentcontrolled buildings in the pipeline or at risk to be converted or demolished. We also responded to calls reporting illegal rent increases and evictions, code violations, and reductions of service, and helped to organize the hundreds of tenants of a notorious slumlord being prosecuted by the City Attorney s Office. My experience that summer was a proverbially life-altering one. Canvassing, in particular, put a human face (indeed, hundreds of them) on the housing crisis, igniting in me a desire to be a part of the lifelong fight to help low- to middle-income residents secure and maintain safe and affordable housing in what is an increasingly out-of-reach housing market here in Los Angeles. Significantly, I also learned that the value of organizing is in empowering people to empower themselves, to fight for themselves, to represent themselves all things which are inestimably more important, effective, and just than other, likely more privileged people trying to do it on their behalf. That said, I do believe that there are roles that allies in this case, affordable housing developers, policymakers, researchers, and other advocates can and should, play in the twopronged fight to maintain LA s existing affordable housing and to develop new, affordable and, as I will discuss, green housing in the region. However, before I can even begin to describe what green affordable housing is, why it s good, and how we might get more of it, I must provide a quick overview of affordable housing generally. A discussion of the state of affordable housing here in Los Angeles also follows. Boltz 6 What is Affordable Housing? Affordable housing seeks to address the housing needs of low- to moderate-income families and individuals. What makes housing affordable? Many standards hold that housing is affordable when no more than 30% of a household s pre-tax income is spent on rent or mortgage payments. A few consider up to 35% on specifically mortgage payments still within the range of affordability. 3 According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), however, housing is affordable only if no more than 30% of income is spent on the monthly housing burden, which includes rent or mortgage and utilities. 4 HUD and others employ the measure of Area Median Income (AMI) in order to calculate income brackets and thus, the housing costs that would qualify as affordable for each income bracket by region. At the end of 2007, the AMI for Los Angeles County was $56,500 for a family of four, $51,000 for a family of three, $45,000 for a couple, and $40,000 for an individual. 5 As mentioned above, affordable housing may accommodate the very lowest-income households and those of a more moderate income alike (where 120% AMI is the threshold for moderate-income, 80% AMI the threshold for low-income, 50% AMI for very lowincome, and 30% AMI for extremely low-income ). As Beth Steckler and Adam Garcia, authors of Affordability Matters: A Look at Housing Construction & Affordability in Los Angeles affirm, People usually talk about rents as being affordable below 30%, 50% or 80% AMI. People usually talk about home prices being affordable below 80% or 120% AMI. 6 Affordable Housing in Los Angeles How well does the supply of affordable housing meet the demand in Los Angeles? Not very: Currently, more than 1 in 5 LA County households pay at least 50% of their income on housing. 7 Today, low- and moderate-income families and individuals who seek affordable, safe, and healthy housing in Los Angeles face a particularly daunting state of affairs, stemming from the County s abiding housing crisis and lack of robust protections for low-income residents. That only 14% of LA County residents could afford the 2005 median home price (which topped a cool half million) speaks to the scope of the current housing crisis. 8 Non-rent-controlled apartments boast similarly exorbitant 3 Global Green USA. Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, Global Green USA, Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, Steckler, Beth and Adam Garcia, Affordability Matters: A Look at Housing Construction & Affordability in Los Angeles, Ibid. 7 Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, Los Angeles County Housing Element Update: Community Meeting, California Economic Development Partnership, California: Los Angeles County, 1. Boltz 7 and ever-increasing rents: Between 2002 and 2006 alone, non-rent controlled rents in Los Angeles County swelled by 22%. 9 During this same period, the aging stock of apartments under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance shrank monthly by landlords leaving the rental business and subdividing or demolishing their rent-controlled units in order to convert them to market-rate condos with impunity. There hasn t been new Section 8 housing construction in decades (such that the waiting period for Section 8 is now nearly a decade long) to say nothing of the lost plight of public housing. Further, there is no new local housing bond to pick up the slack: Recent City initiatives to fund the production of 1,000 affordable units each year for ten years have failed each time they have reached the ballot, the latest one in 2006 receiving just less than 4 percentage points short of the 2/3 majority required. 10 Finally, with the steady flows of people and investment being redirected en masse to the inner city after a half-century of suburbanization, virtually no LA neighborhood has been left untouched; even the poorest are gentrifying, leaving no place for longtime residents, once displaced, to go as rents double, even triple. And these are but the main dilemmas complicating the provision of affordable housing in Los Angeles. What We Need Hand in hand with protection of the County s existing stock of affordable housing, then, the development of new, safe and affordable housing opportunities for low- to middle-income residents remains a critical battleground in Los Angeles. Such development has the potential to play an important role in improving the quality of life of thousands of families, seniors, and disabled persons each year. And, as we shall see, affordable housing promises to do even more for residents when situated within a theoretical framework of 3 E s sustainability: By incorporating green features into both affordable new build and the renovation of older affordable housing, so-called green affordable housing has the potential to enhance not only individual quality of life, but to transform the prevailing life of entire communities and urban centers into something palpably more sustainable and humane. 9 Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, Los Angeles County Housing Element Update: Community Meeting, Smart Voter. Measure H: Affordable Housing General Obligation Bonds, City of Los Angeles, 1. Boltz 8 I. WHAT DO WE MEAN BY SUSTAINABILITY? The challenge for sustainability in the developed world is how to reduce our ecological footprint while satisfying the economic aspirations and sociocultural needs of society. William E. Rees, Achieving Sustainability: Reform or Transformation? Sustainability: Older than You or Me or Any of Us Certainly, sustainability is not a remotely new idea. Historically, many cultures have emphasized the value of to borrow an Aboriginal phrase touching the earth lightly. 11 A great many more have simply practiced what, in effect, can be considered a sustainable way of life: Brenda and Robert Vale, some of the first scholars to write about a Green Architecture in their book of the same name cite the examples of the Bedouin and the Netsilik Inuit. 12 And yet, sustainable practices are by no means restricted to disappearing nomadic cultures (who, I think, can be viewed as practicing an ideal type of sustainability). Exasperated by the notion that sustainability is something new and/or the singular domain of white liberals, Lance Williams, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) reasons that, You can t teach poor people, whether in Manila or South Central [Los Angeles] to be green [sustainable]. They ve been doing it for years. 13 Here, he observes that socioeconomic status is strongly correlated with consumption and waste generation and thus, with sustainability or its lack thereof. Though the reputation of cities as hubs of resource use and waste generation is certainly legitimate, David Satterthwaite, author of Sustainable Cities or Cities that Contribute to Sustainable Development? reminds us that it is the affluent within cities that are disproportionately responsible for these burdens. 14 The Conceptual Roots of Sustainability and Sustainable Development Today, when the term sustainability is invoked, it is generally grounded in an environmental or ecological understanding of the word, and in this understanding alone; indeed, this is the way in which I have employed the word in the previous paragraph. This is not surprising given 11 Vale, Brenda and Robert, Principles of Green Architecture, Ibid. 13 Global Green USA, Enterprise Community Partners, and SCANPH, Envisioning the Future of Green Affordable Housing. Strategic Planning Session. 14 Satterthwaite, David, Sustainable Cities or Cites that Contribute to Sustainable Development? Though I will shy away from making consumption-curbing prescriptions here, l will note that I think this privileged group includes myself and likely anyone reading this paper. Boltz 9 that the conceptual basis of sustainability can be traced back to what Charles Kidd identifies as at least six different (if related) schools of thought relating to the biophysical world: the ecological/carrying capacity root, the natural resource/environment root, the biosphere, root, the critique-of-technology root, and the ecodevelopment root. 15 Though each root prioritized various environmental needs in slightly different ways, common to nearly all was the idea of ecological carrying capacity, that is, the idea that the earth s resources and environment have a finite ability to sustain or carry life, particularly animal life. 16 Because humans are depleting natural resources much faster than they can be renewed, thereby contributing to the ever-diminished carrying capacity of the earth, human activity at least as currently practiced Kent Portney points out may be thought of as patently unsustainable. 17 Ecological sustainability, then, has traditionally urged the modification of human individual and collective behavior so as not to exceed the carrying capacity of the earth. 18 Over time and in order to add to discussions taking place on international economic development, scholars began to articulate a new type of sustainability: sustainable development. In this way, early theories of sustainable development united the ecological goals of sustainability with the economic goals of development. Such a conceptual move in turn spurred the articulation of numerous other sustainabilities: a social sustainability, a political sustainability, a cultural sustainability, and so on. 19 Importantly, each new theory favored its own view of sustainability over the last and none really considered the possibility of a more inclusive sustainability. The Origins of the 3 E s Perspective The first appearance of a definition of sustainability or sustainable development that merged ecological, economic, and social objectives came in the form of the Brundtland Commission s oftcited 1987 report, Our Common Future (Officially the World Commission on Economic Development, the Commission took on the name of its Chair and former Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland). 20 Our Common Future intentionally painted sustainable development with a broad brush, defining it as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising 15 Portney, Kent, Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously: A Comparative Analysis of Twenty-Three U.S. Cities, Ibid. 17 Portney, Kent, Ibid. 19 See the 1992 Rio Earth Summit s proceedings for a sustainability that stressed livability and quality of life. 20 Officially the World Commission on Economic Development, the Commission took on the name of its Chair and former Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Boltz 10 the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. 21 As Satterthwaite recalls, what [made] the Brundtland Commission s statement so important at the time was that its visionary insistence that [the] meeting [of] human [economic, social, cultural, health, and political] needs must be combined with ecological sustainability 22 Drawing on this multi-faceted understanding of sustainability, but distilling in particular the powerful triumvirate of environmental, economic and social goals, the three-legged stool or 3 E s (for Ecology, Economy, Equity) model of sustainability soon emerged. Various visual models now exist to describe 3 E s sustainability (See Appendix A for three distinct representations), but common to all is the idea that true sustainability cannot exist without attention to each of the three competing interests within civil society: economic development, environmental protection and social equity World Commission on Economic Development, Our Common Future, Satterthwaite, David, Moore, Steven, A., Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City: Austin, Curitiba, and Frankfurt, 17. Boltz 11 II. THE SUSTAINABLE CITY: IMPOSSIBLE DREAM OR ATTAINABLE GOAL? Cities are not self-sufficient and it is difficult
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