November 1, 2020
California has some of America’s most aggressive climate change policies. But those policies are facing fierce opposition – not from big business or the oil and gas sector – but from the state’s Latino community.
Over the past two years, California’s Latino leaders have filed lawsuits that aim to halt several climate-focused regulations due to their negative effect on low- and middle-income Californians. Those same leaders are also calling out the Sierra Club and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) for their support of regulations that are increasing the cost of energy, transportation, and housing in California, which has the highest poverty rate in America.
The Latino backlash against California’s climate policies — which has largely been ignored by state and national media outlets — exposes the growing chasm between the state’s powerful bureaucracy, which is closely aligned with California’s entrenched environmental groups, and the Latino and demographic realities of America’s most-populous state. It also presages a potential clash at the national level if federal policymakers attempt to implement California’s stringent climate measures throughout the rest of the country.
In a recent episode of the Power Hungry Podcast, Robert Apodaca, a longtime Latino activist and the executive director of United Latinos Vote, told me that climate change is “a big issue and it needs to be addressed.” But he added that California’s regulations are coming “at the expense of poor people.” He continued, saying that the California’s regulatory agencies and the Sierra Club are promoting policies that will make it “more difficult to buy a home and more difficult to not be driven into poverty because of a higher cost of living and energy.”
California has the largest Latino population in the country. Some 15 million Latinos live in the Golden State and they account for about 40 percent of its population. Latino leaders are objecting to the state’s climate-change rules because they will further exacerbate California’s housing crisis and increase poverty. When accounting for the cost of living, 18.1% of the state’s residents are living in poverty and the poverty rate among Latino and Black Americans is roughly twice the rate for whites.
Apodaca also points out that Latinos lag far behind whites in California in homeownership, which is crucial to building wealth. In 2018, the homeownership rate among California Latinos was about 44 percent. Among whites, that rate is about 63 percent.
As the state’s policymakers have ratcheted up renewable-energy mandates, increased motor-fuel taxes, implemented bans on the use of natural gas, lavished subsidies on electric cars, and issued bans on internal-combustion automobiles, Apodaca and other Latino leaders have grown increasingly disgusted. And their disgust can be seen in the pages of the state’s biggest newspapers.
In September, United Latinos Vote purchased an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times that carried the headline an “Open Letter to the Sierra Club.” It declared, “your world is not our world,” and “yours feels hypocritical and socially divisive and would disproportionately burden those who you claim to support the most.” The letter criticized the club’s policy efforts in the state, including bans on natural gas use and internal-combustion vehicles. It said “we are people who make tough daily choices about how to drive to work, feed our kids, share a video screen for school, and take our parents to the doctor. All these things are hard. Your world would make them only harder.”
On October 20, The Two Hundred, a coalition of Latino civil-rights leaders, sent a blistering letter to CARB that begins, “We write again to object to the continued racist conduct of the California Air Resources Board.” The letter, which was signed by The Two Hundred’s co-chair, John Gamboa, says, “CARB wants to put our communities back into the all-affordable rental housing ‘projects’ that state and federal civil rights laws outlaw. CARB is long overdue for fundamental reform to align our leaders’ global climate grandstanding with the urgent housing and mobility needs of our communities.”
In 2018, Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney for The Two Hundred, filed a suit against CARB which claims that its rules violate the Fair Employment and Housing Act because the agency’s greenhouse-gas emissions rules on housing “have a disparate negative impact on minority communities and are discriminatory against minority communities and their members.” The suit, The Two Hundred vs. CARB, also claims the measures are illegal under the Federal Housing Act because California’s climate regulations are making affordable housing unavailable. It also includes a claim under the Fourteenth Amendment because minorities and low-income residents are being denied equal protection under the law and it points out that Californians pay “58% more in average electricity cost per kilowatt-hour and about $0.80 cents more per gallon of gas than the national average.”
In 2019, Hernandez, who is a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight, filed another lawsuit against the state which claims that California’s minority communities are becoming “collateral damage” in the state’s “war on climate change.” The 250-page civil rights lawsuit suit challenges a host of regulations on housing and transportation. It says that “Entrenched special interest groups, including environmentalists, block meaningful housing policy reforms” and that the state’s housing crisis is “re-segregating the state, and is deepening an already severe civil rights crisis.”
A primary focus of the lawsuit is a recently enacted rule regarding vehicle miles traveled, or VMT. The measure, which took effect on July 1, is an attempt by regulators to force new homebuyers to quit using automobiles and instead use buses and mass transit. That means forcing more Californians to live near “transit priority areas” that are close to major urban centers. Developers who build housing located far from these priority areas must pay a fee based on the projected number of miles the residents of that housing may drive. The more the expected driving that will be done, the higher the fee.
The lawsuit says the VMT rule is unfair because “Latino and other minority workers who need to get to their job, on time, to be paid,” have to drive their cars to get to work. It continued, saying that the VMT rule will further increase the cost of housing, but the state has refused “to acknowledge the housing crisis, or any duty to help solve it.”
In June, Hernandez filed a motion for preliminary injunction to prevent the VMT measure, which was never approved by the California Assembly, from taking effect. In that motion, Hernandez wrote that the highest costs imposed by the VMT rule will be in “areas farther away from job centers. This is where housing can be produced at the lowest cost and is the primary source of housing” for low- and middle-income Californians.” However, measures to mitigate VMT, “especially in rural areas, significantly drive up the cost of residential development.”
How much will VMT add to the cost of housing? A June 25 article published by GVwire.com, cited an official with the Building Industry Association of Fresno-Madera Counties who “has estimated that the VMT fees for a 20-unit project in Clovis would be $460,000 over 30 years — or $23,000 a unit.”
Whatever the final cost, the fact that California is imposing regulations that increase the cost of housing shows how absurd the state’s regulatory system has become. In 2016, McKinsey estimated that California needs about 3.5 million more homes to meet demand and Gov. Gavin Newsom has made housing a central theme of his administration’s goals. But the problem is so dire that it may take decades to solve. In fact, one recent analysis suggests it may take the state until 2050 to resolve the problem.
In a recent email, Hernandez told me that the state’s VMT rule is “an unbelievably regressive program,” and that CARB chair “Mary Nichols (and the California climate advocates more generally) have been given the helm on these issues in the Biden” administration. She added, “Appalachia economics” has already hit California’s “non-coastal elites; more to come.”
It will likely take several years for the lawsuits that Hernandez and the Two Hundred have filed against the state to be resolved. But the backlash against California’s regulations are indicative of the type of battles that could occur — in other states or at the national level — if policymakers attempt to impose harsh climate-focused measures that impose regressive taxes on the poor and the middle class.
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