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California Struggles To Fix Zoning That Promotes Racial Inequity And Climate Change


President Trump is attacking Democrats in an area where he's trying to win votes - the suburbs.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They want to eliminate single-family zoning bringing - who knows? - into your suburbs.

SHAPIRO: Communities are grappling with how single-family zoning can exacerbate racial inequity and climate change. NPR's Lauren Sommer tells us how states like California are struggling to change housing laws.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: For some climate activists, Susan Kirsch is one of their biggest obstacles, which may seem strange because she cares about the environment.

SUSAN KIRSCH: Yes (laughter), you're looking at my plug-in Prius connected to my solar panels that plug in the energy.

SOMMER: Back in February, I went to Kirsch's home in Mill Valley, Calif., a city of mostly single-family houses about half an hour north of San Francisco. Median home price is around 1.5 million.

KIRSCH: There is a great appreciation, if you just look at the view from here, of bushes and trees and scenery.

SOMMER: Kirsch's house is exactly the kind in the middle of a huge housing debate. She lives in a walkable neighborhood near a bus line, grocery store and bank. But the zoning only allows single-family homes here, so some California lawmakers have been trying to allow denser housing, like duplexes or fourplexes.

KIRSCH: Knowing that any of the neighbors could do that same kind of thing, there's a sense of the kind of incredible impact of that kind of change in this community.

SOMMER: So Kirsch started organizing to defeat the upzoning (ph) bill in the state legislature, which first came up in 2018. That earned her the label NIMBY - not in my backyard.

KIRSCH: Actually, I keep trying to change the label to be a bit of a badge of honor in terms of stewardship.

SOMMER: Because for her, environmentalism falls into the small-is-beautiful camp.

KIRSCH: I think climate change is one of the real serious issues that we have to deal with. But I don't think we need to be forcing draconian measures, taking away local control and local preferences to be able to solve that problem.

SOMMER: In January, state lawmakers took on that debate.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Senators, we are ready to begin.

SOMMER: For the third time in two years, state Sen. Scott Wiener tried to rally support for his housing bill.


SCOTT WIENER: Restrictive zoning also leads to sprawl; sprawl because if you can't build where the jobs and the transit are, you're just going to build further and further out.

SOMMER: The measure failed. This summer, California legislators are considering new housing bills in another attempt.

ETHAN ELKIND: We just simply cannot meet our near-term and, certainly, our long-term climate goals unless we address the land use question.

SOMMER: Ethan Elkind is director of the climate program at UC Berkeley's law school. He says California's emissions from driving are still going up, which shows a disconnect. Cities may consider themselves environmentally progressive, but their zoning bans duplexes or triplexes in up to 98% of residential areas in some towns.

ELKIND: Those people who would have lived in that home are not just going to evaporate from Earth. They're just going to choose a different home. And for all the electric miles you're putting on your Toyota Prius or whatever it is, you're now forcing those residents to have to drive 30, 40, 50 miles in a gas vehicle.

SOMMER: But what California hasn't done other places have. Last year, Oregon passed a law to allow higher density housing. And before that, Minneapolis was the first major city to tackle single-family zoning. A central reason - racial inequity.

ALVARO SANCHEZ: The conditions that people are living with today in communities of color - those were locked in by a housing policy, and what it locked in usually is poverty and pollution.

SOMMER: Alvaro Sanchez is with the Greenlining Institute, a racial and economic justice group in Oakland, Calif. He says the history of racial discrimination has shaped the way cities look. In the 1900s, some homes had racial covenants, which meant only white residents could own them. In some cities, single-family zoning was adopted explicitly for racial segregation. These days, Sanchez says the issue of race is still there, but it's not said out loud.

SANCHEZ: You know, I think that there's undertones of, well, we don't want our neighborhood to change. And to me, I'm left with a question mark. What's the kind of change you don't want to come to your neighborhood? What's the expectation that, if you densify a certain kind of demographic, is going to come to your neighborhood?

SOMMER: Changing single-family zoning alone won't solve inequity, he says. You need affordable housing policies to make sure it doesn't lead to gentrification and displacement. That also means making sure neighborhoods are walkable with transit and green space - things that are important for equity and the climate.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.