This Is How Wildfires, Climate Change and Affordable Housing Are All Linked

Sep 15, 2020

Credit Twitter/San Bernardino County Fire Department

This fire season has revealed the reality that more people are choosing to live in fire prone areas in California—raising the stakes of the worsening wildfire season. KVCR’s Megan Jamerson spoke with a University of Redlands associate professor of ecnomics who says affordable housing is not only an essential solution for fighting wildfires but for addressing climate change.

Imagine a world in which California is a leader in affordable housing. Housing is more-dense, people live closer to work and schools and commute times fall. This means public transportation becomes more robust and efficient because people are more centrally located. Car use drops along with greenhouse gas emissions. 

“It’s a really important part of reducing emissions," said Dr. Nicholas Reksten, an environmental economist at the University of Redlands. "At the same time, it would help reduce pressure on people to settle in what scholars call the wildland urban interface. So, these areas that where people live but where wildfires can also happen.”

These areas on the edge of grasslands, in forests and mountains are where the state’s fires are currently raging and racking up the costs. From the cost of fighting the fires themselves to the loss of human life, homes, work hours and the long-term cost of smoke exposure on health.

Climate science shows without action, emissions will continue to raise temperatures, worsen droughts that provide fuel for wildfires and extend the fire season. Reksten says California has aggressive climate action goals when it come to reducing energy grid emissions but it has not done as well when it comes to its biggest emissions offender—transportation.

“In terms of a cost benefit analysis there is zero question," said Reksten. "I mean it is absolutely clear that on net, it makes sense to take extremely aggressive action against further climate change to mitigate these wildfires. That is like absolutely clear overall.”

With any policy he says there are economic winners and losers. Everyone wins if climate outcomes improve. But more specifically, affordable housing policy is great for developers who stand to make a lot of money if cities change laws around housing development. The losers, homeowners, are also very politically powerful.

“There’s a correct perception that building more homes would eventually mean that your home value would fall,” said Reksten.

This means a loss of assets and less economic flexibility for Southern California’s suburban homeowners. But cheaper prices also makes housing more affordable for people who have been historically priced out of ownership. This leads to the secondary issue which is often coded as “preserving neighborhood character” but is related to racial discrimination against Black and brown people.

“There’s anxiety about affordable policies bringing more people who aren’t white into white communities,” said Reksten.  

He says there is a strange dichotomy where people who consider themselves progressive, that vote in favor of action on climate change, do not vote for affordable housing. And if people do not start making the link between affordable housing and action on climate, the economic costs for everyone will continue to rise.