To the Editor, New York Times
Re: As Wildfires Grow, Millions of Homes Are Being Built in Harm’s Way, By Nadja Popovich and Brad PlumerSept. 9, 2022
Your excellent article describes explosive development in the “wildland-urban interface” (WUI) yet misses that, in California, the growth is MANDATED.
California is overriding local zoning and forcing unfunded construction of 2.5 million new housing-units state-wide, Those sited in the WUI exacerbate the already intolerable fire-risk communities face. SB162 would have required evacuation access in areas to be developed, but Governor Newsom vetoed it.
Many cities are unable to identify hazard-free buildable land with evacuation access, but — fearing severe punishments for non-compliance — must create lists of potential sites, then solicit for-profit developers to build, offering streamlined approval processes, without design oversight, adequate environmental review, or community input.
Our dry, water-insecure state, with year-round “explosive” fire seasons has been given over to for-profit development regardless of consequences. The Forestry Service and CAL FIRE are severely understaffed and struggle to retain firefighters. Irresponsible, unfettered development in the WUI will soon reshape our state. I urge this paper to incorporate all factors regarding housing, fire, and drought when reporting on California.
Amy Kalish, Mill Valley CA
Note to Nadja Popovich and Brad Plumer: I am happy to share my research into the coincident issues of California housing mandates, WUI, climate change driven fires, evacuation routes, drought, and infrastructure. For example: in a town near Bakersfield a house burned because the town is out of water and the hoses don’t fill. The area is agricultural and fields are fallow, jobs are lost, the population is shrinking, and still the state is requiring 33,000 units of housing in the county.
The Regional Housing Numbers Allocations (RHNA) are assigned in 8 year cycles. This cycle demands up to 15x more housing than previous cycles. All cities in the state over 2,500 are required to increase population 10-15%, sometimes more, over 8 years, with no infrastructure planning.
The numbers were created before Covid, drought, fires, and climate change were major issues, have not been adjusted to take reality into account. The numbers are siloed from any of these relevant factors, including cost and availability of land, labor, and materials.
The building is an unfunded mandate that forces rezoning of land so for-profit developers can build without interference. Cities lose tax revenue and must give “bonuses” to developers for producing density. The usual protections — planning, CEQA (environmental studies), community input, etc. have been eliminated. Because it is for-profit, very little low income housing will result. The mandates even state that about half of the units must be market rate and above; cities that tried to increase the ratio of low income housing were denied.
A huge number of housing laws, ramping up in 2020, went under the radar. Two more are going on the books this week. Most Californians have no idea this is happening. The state has created an antagonistic situation with the cities and even created a “Strike Force” in the attorney general’s office to sue cities into compliance. Fines for not producing the housing (which means that private developers didn’t build it) are $10,000 PER DAY.
My main interest is housing mandates in clearly hazardous areas with obvious evacuation limitations. Mill Valley, where I live, is a perfect example of a disaster waiting to happen, yet the city must add 865 units which will further block egress of about 20,000 uphill residents who must evacuate on one of two small roads.
My site with much more detail: citizenmarin.org
I have been waiting to see more integrated reporting on this topic, but it often, sadly, deteriorates into a NIMBY vs YIMBY argument, which is the shallowest lens through which the issues can be viewed.