News From the Center | Feb. 2023

Larry Glass, NEC Board President
Caroline Griffith, NEC Executive Director

The High Cost of Building Housing

Here on the North Coast, new real estate schemes that claim they will ease the housing crisis seem to be popping up like mushrooms after a rain; often  ill-conceived, and driven by profit. With an increase in local growth expected due to Cal Poly’s expansion and the nascent offshore wind industry, there will undoubtedly be more on the way and we need to be careful to not be seduced by the lure of projects that are poorly located and don’t include truly affordable homes.

In California from the 1930s to the early 1970s, low-income housing was subsidized by the Federal Government and operated by 3,000 local public housing authorities. In California, local Redevelopment Agencies also allocated 20 percent of their budgets to low-income housing, until the State Legislature dissolved them in 2011. Don’t get us wrong, these agencies were not perfect, but compared to the free-market greed fest we have now, they look a lot better.  

Once public housing programs were eliminated, the unfunded responsibility for getting low-priced housing built was dumped on local governments, which is one reason they turned to trickle-down programs to replace public housing. This shift of responsibility to local governments and the free market has not worked. Rarely does low-income housing get built, which is a major reason why homelessness continues to increase. 

Now it’s left to speculators and developers to create housing opportunities so what we get are plans for business-as-usual subdivisions which don’t serve those most in need of housing; like plans to put 300 hundred units by Indianola Cut-Off, six miles from any services and priced out of reach for the people that need the housing, or the proposed McKay Ranch development which will be priced for climate refugees from down south. Neither of these proposals are located close to services, meaning more car-dependent, car-centric development, which is not the direction we need to be going given the climate crisis. 

Here’s an idea: What if the City of Eureka tore down the Lloyd Building and combined that lot with the neighboring parking lot to put up a multi-story affordable housing project? In Arcata, the City Council could use its rezoning plan in the Gateway District to prioritize deed-restricted low- and very low-income housing. And both cities could pass vacancy taxes and rent control to prioritize the utilization of existing housing and keep that housing affordable. 

The Environmental Costs of Not Prioritizing Affordable Housing

We often talk about the environmental impact of building housing, especially conventional single-family housing that leads to sprawl, but let’s also look at the environmental impacts of not providing housing, especially for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. 

Over the last three months, staff and volunteers with the Northcoast Environmental Center have been conducting trash cleanups in the Arcata Marsh, removing over 3,000 pounds of trash from waterways. Throughout our cleanups we’ve interacted with and worked alongside numerous people who are living in the marsh because they have nowhere else to go. Much of what we have cleaned up is the result of people living in the marsh who don’t have trash service or the resources and means for disposal. This situation is not ideal for anyone, not the people living in the marsh, the wildlife that depend on a clean ecosystem, or the recreational users. 

We absolutely need more low-income housing that is close to services so that people don’t need to rely on cars, but in the meantime between now and when housing becomes available, there are steps that cities can take to protect people and the environment. Establishing places where people can legally camp or park the cars and RVs that they live in would help protect our open spaces and animal habitat while also providing services (like trash service and bathrooms) that are necessary for environmental and human health. 

The current policies of our local governments are to routinely push people from the places that they are camping, often justified by the existence of trash, without giving them alternative places to go. This results in people being pushed from open space to open space, which benefits neither the environment nor the community and is a waste of resources that would be better used providing services. We challenge our local governments to establish safe parking and safe camping zones, provide trash service and bathrooms, and engage the people who are using these services in the care and upkeep of the places they are camping. In our experience working with our unhoused neighbors we have found that they care for the environment just as much as we do. They value clean water. They love the wildlife. They simply lack the resources and infrastructure necessary to protect the environment in the ways they would like to. That’s where local government can step in. It just needs to muster the political will to do so. 

The New Green Scare

Right before we went to press, we learned that a forest defender outside of Atlanta was shot and killed by police while protesting at the proposed site of a law enforcement training center. Activists, who have been labeled as eco-terrorists in an echo of the post-Patriot Act “Green Scare”, have been protesting for months against the logging of 85 acres of forested land for the development of what they are calling “Cop City.” The circumstances of the shooting are still unclear, with police claiming that the protester shot at them first and activists disputing that claim. As we wait to learn more, we can’t help but wonder if this is the start of another era of targeting and scapegoating activists like we saw during Redwood Summer and the early years of the Iraq War. We will be watching and waiting.