Housing the Vulnerable and Protecting the Land Don’t Need to Conflict

by Caroline Griffith

It’s no secret that California has a housing problem. Here on the North Coast, one potential housing project has gotten a lot of media attention not because of what it is, but because of its controversial location. The Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation, which works to feed and provide transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness, has been working for nearly two years to get approval for a project to transitionally house up to forty people in trailers donated by PG&E.

Betty Kwan Chinn in front of an existing transitional housing project. A similar project using trailers donated by PG&E for
transitional housing is moving forward. Photo source: Betty Chin Facebook.

Unfortunately, this project was proposed for a property in the Coastal Zone and does not comply with the Coastal Act, so approval required appealing a zoning change to the Coastal Commission. The City of Eureka was aware that this would need to go before the Commission, but for some reason did not take the necessary steps to bring the project to the Commission in a timely manner. The project is now moving forward, but due to the length of time the City took to submit its application (and the fact that the Commission works on a shoestring budget and 172 staff analyze development permits for the 1,271 miles of coastline), the Commission has been characterized by some as slowing down progress on this project. This is a misdirection and incomplete view of a complex issue, which unfortunately only serves to divide housing advocates and conservationists.

In fact, at certain points in its history, the Coastal Commission has had the power to prioritize affordable housing. The California Coastal Act was enacted in 1972 when Proposition 20 was passed by 62% of voters. Motivated by rampant coastal development (like The Sea Ranch in Sonoma County and Humboldt’s own Shelter Cove), a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara and a general environmental awakening that was happening across the U.S. at the time, Californians realized that “local control” was not protecting the coast for all Californians and sought to create coastal development standards and environmental protections. The Coastal Act, as Prop. 20 was called, created six regional commissions charged with establishing a policy plan for the coast to guide development into the future while making sure that the coast remained accessible to everyone. The first Executive Director of the Coastal Commission was Peter Douglas, who was beloved by environmentalists. One of the authors of the Coastal Act and a self-described “radical pagan heretic,” Douglas served for 26 years and his guidance and ethos have led to the coastal preservation and access that many of us take for granted. 

When the Coastal Act was codified by the legislature in 1976, six regional commissions were tasked with regulating development on the coast and guaranteeing coastal access to low and moderate income people, basically ensuring that coastal access couldn’t be bought up by the wealthy. The law even allowed the commission to stipulate that a certain percentage of coastal access and accommodations needed to be for low-income people. According to Rick Rayburn, the former Executive Director of the North Coast Regional Commission, this was a mandate that the commission took very seriously. “We jumped right in,” he said. “At the time, a lot of things were being converted to condos and sold to high income people. Commission staff were very young and aggressive, even though they had gotten involved to save the coast, not to help low income people.” 

This aggressive focus on equity led to a backlash in Sacramento and lawmakers removed the mandate that critics said led to “social engineering.” When the commission became permanent, it came under the direction of the state legislature which specifically removed housing from the accessibility mandate in the 80s. Though affordable housing was removed from the Commission’s mandate, it could be restored by an act of the legislature. There are also ways that the Commission can address housing issues by delving into short-term rental policies, i.e. vacation rentals and Air BnBs, and working to balance between affordable vacation accommodations and affordable housing.

So, although the Coastal Commission can weigh in on housing accessibility as it pertains to permits before it, and could potentially make it a priority when it comes to coastal development, it can only do so when project permits are applied for. In short, it can only work with what it’s given. The larger issue here is that this project was proposed on a property that is not zoned appropriately, one that previous Commissions would most likely have denied due to worries about flood hazard and a prioritization of restoration. But, because it is not permanent housing and there is a dire need, the project is moving forward. 

Whether this property was chosen due to NIMBYism and a fear of backlash from neighbors who don’t want to live next door to a transitional housing village or a lack of funding, the fact remains that if it had been proposed elsewhere, the Coastal Commission would not have even been a player. In fact, there are properties owned by the City, outside of the Coastal Zone, that could be appropriate for a project like this, and would not need to go through a lengthy appeals process. Some of these are paved, have sewer and water hookups, with no wetlands nearby. The City of Eureka has recently started offering city-owned properties (many of them parking lots) up for Request for Proposal (RFPs) by affordable housing developers, which will add new, safe and affordable units to our housing stock. Unfortunately, funding is still an issue. Another game-changer for housing would be a statewide bond measure that State Senator Mike McGuire and others are working to get on the ballot for 2021, which would fund the creation of new affordable housing for low-income and houseless people. Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco has also introduced a suite of bills to spur housing production while also addressing environmental sustainability and economic and racial justice which, added to numerous other bills that have been introduced in the State Senate, could provide a pathway out of the current crisis.

There are achievable solutions to our housing crisis and we can take care of our most vulnerable citizens while also taking care of vulnerable natural areas. We just need the political will and bravery to allocate the necessary funding and appropriate land to do so.