Op-ed: Councilman Arreguín can’t greenwash his anti-housing policies

Councilman Jesse Arreguín has put forward two items on Tuesday’s City Council agenda which impose infeasible requirements for new housing construction while making one-acre farms the easiest thing to build in Berkeley. While they’re presented as necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, looking through the nearly 50 pages of recommendations, it’s pretty clear that these proposals aren’t really about reducing emissions. They’re a laundry list of ideas that look and sound green, but have little actual benefit for the environment. Instead, these policies would make new housing more expensive and help landowners profit off of keeping land undeveloped – a housing obstructionist’s dream.

This isn’t a new approach from Councilman Arreguín – we’ve seen this tactic before, when he was a lead proponent for the 2014 Measure R, which claimed to advance a “green Downtown.” In reality, Measure R would have effectively blocked most new housing in Downtown (housing which is already held to high environmental standards), driven up rents, reduced the creation of affordable housing, and lengthened commutes. Fortunately, Berkeley voters saw through it and rejected it soundly, with over 74% of Berkeley voters saying “No” to Measure R in 2014.

Now, Councilman Arreguín is at it again. The “Deep Green” recommendations, co-authored by Sophie Hahn (co-author of 2014 Measure R) and Kelly Hammargren (lead appellant against a 302-unit LEED Gold apartment building in Downtown), would require new residential buildings to meet exacting requirements with dubious environmental benefits. One such requirement is that every new building install extensive dual piping systems to keep shower wastewater separate from sewage, so that on-site greywater reuse can be installed “at a future date.” Aside from having nothing to do with emissions, on-site greywater reuse is an absurd proposal for new apartment buildings with negligible landscaping. If we’re going to be serious about using greywater, it will need to be through wastewater reclamation and new distribution infrastructure managed by EBMUD – not on a case-by-case basis with separate treatment systems for every building.

Another item in the “Deep Green” package would require new construction to meet unparalleled (and potentially infeasible) constraints on energy use. However, as even the authors point out, energy consumption is becoming decoupled from carbon emissions, as “…[California’s] Renewable Portfolio Standard, and… the Alameda County Community Choice Energy program are quickly shifting the power sources for electricity to clean renewables.” With renewable and other sources of carbon-free electricity coming online, extreme levels of energy conservation doesn’t result in significant emissions reductions – it just makes life more difficult for builders and residents.

The “Deep Green” proposal says these requirements should begin as voluntary, incentive-based measures, but fails to even begin to consider what the scale of those incentives (and their cost to the City) might need to be to make these proposals remotely feasible. While the authors wrote roughly 30 pages of exacting and detailed building standards, their recommendations for incentives was limited to little more than a sentence: “Specific incentives… [should] be developed in collaboration with city staff.”

The Urban Agriculture package, meanwhile, does propose specific incentives to encourage farming. It proposes bypassing public review and approval entirely, to automatically allow farms on up to nearly an acre of commercial-zoned land, or of unlimited size on unoccupied residential land. The Urban Agriculture package expands this by-right approval to construction of greenhouses, sheds, and fences; community gatherings and group class instruction; and sales of both raw and processed foods. It imposes no limitations on use of GMOs, pesticides, fertilizer, or industrial farming equipment.

Last I checked, Berkeley faced a shortage of housing – not of farms. And again, this proposal wouldn’t result in reduced emissions. Berkeley measures emissions based on what’s emitted within city limits, or as a result of electricity used within city limits, so reducing food miles doesn’t count towards our emissions reductions goals. Allowing an urban farm to generate traffic and operate industrial equipment would actually increase local emissions, while displacing housing and forcing people who work and study in Berkeley to commute from further away.

Councilman Arreguín’s proposals do little to help the environment, while making it even more difficult to build or afford housing in Berkeley. It’s one thing to try and sell your anti-housing policy as “green” – that takes little more than throwing up every possible obstacle and seeing what sticks. Real sustainability, on the other hand, requires thoughtful approaches that address environmental, social, and economic issues. That’s the type of approach that can result in both meaningful emissions reductions and more opportunities for people who want to come and make a life in Berkeley – the type of approach that Berkeley deserves.

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Ben Gould is Chair of the Community Environmental Advisory Commission and a candidate for Berkeley Mayor. He is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying Public Policy and Environmental Engineering.