When it comes to the interests of low-income people, affordable housing and clean air advocates usually work side by side in Oakland and the Bay Area. However, the issue of impending air quality guidelines drafted by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) for new or renovated affordable housing sites has caused disagreement between the two groups.
A brand new kind of guideline, dubbed “Risk and Hazard thresholds for new receptors,” would pay special attention to existing pollutants in the air where developments are planned. The pollutants on watch include chemical compounds found in diesel exhaust, as well as dust and other hazardous chemicals. The new guidelines lay out thresholds of pollutants that are acceptable before further review needs to take place. If a proposed site surpasses these thresholds, developers can propose environmental mitigations, but they may eventually have to perform a costly study called an environmental impact review.
Environmental justice advocates welcome these new guidelines as a way to protect public health, especially the health of low-income people they feel are disproportionately exposed to hazards like diesel exhaust. But developers say that having to measure the pollutants could cause a big setback for the environment. They say applying these guidelines at new sites will slow down urban infill projects—which are meant to reduce carbon emissions by encouraging people to live in city centers instead of commuting to them—by requiring costly review procedures. What’s more, they say it could leave them open to malicious lawsuits and prevent development in areas close to freeways and other transit centers.
The guidelines debuted in early 2010, when BAAQMD revamped all of its air quality guidelines, which help cities and counties stay in compliance with the state environmental law often called CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act. “They were due for an update,” said BAAQMD director of planning Henry Hilken. But their implementation has already been pushed back twice, and they are now scheduled to take effect on May 1, 2011.
The guidelines aren’t legally enforceable, but they lay the groundwork for the process of creating a legally sound development project that doesn’t violate CEQA, said Hilken. Running afoul of the BAAQMD guidelines invites legal trouble.
The new guidelines met instant criticism from developers when first laid out in 2010. The California Builders Industry Association objected to the guidelines on environmental grounds. One of the association’s chief concerns is that keeping development away from areas like freeways and bus lines will push Bay Area residents away from existing transit infrastructure. “This residential displacement will increase vehicle miles traveled thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbating the [toxic air contaminant] problems the proposed regulations are designed to alleviate,” read a comment letter sent to BAAQMD in June, 2010, by the association.
Among the critics of the guidelines are affordable housing developers, who typically champion clean air regulations that protect low-income people. The San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, a group that includes non-profit developers like Bridge Housing and Habitat for Humanity—both of which have built affordable housing projects in Oakland—wrote a comment letter to BAAQMD stating, “We strongly oppose measures that would increase impediments and uncertainty to high-density urban infill projects.”
Hilken said BAAQMD is sensitive to these worries. “We very much want to encourage development in our built-up cities and downtowns, near our transit,” he said, “but at the same time, as cities are planning those downtown developments, we have to be careful not to locate housing or schools too close to those toxic pollutants.”
Oakland’s biggest pollutant is diesel exhaust, Hilken said, and West Oakland has the highest concentration of the toxin in the Bay Area. The toxin has been linked to asthma, as well as to cancer and can exacerbate bronchitis and emphysema.
The prevalence of the harmful diesel exhaust is one reason why environmental justice groups support the new guidelines calling for screening for pollutants before bringing in new residents. Azibuike Akaba, a policy associate for the group Regional Asthma Management and Prevention, voiced his support for the guidelines at a recent BAAQMD workshop in downtown Oakland, where developers and city officials from around the Bay Area expressed their concerns over the guidelines. “I feel like there’s a lot of pressure around you guys becoming lax with the conservative screening values,” Akaba said. “But I think the purpose of the values was to be a health protection.”
Akaba said that his organization advocates for statewide and regional health protections to limit asthma triggers in the environment. He said the guidelines are not as restrictive as some opponents have made them out to be. “It’s not like if you don’t pass the screening test you won’t get your project done,” Akaba said. The next step, he said, is to see “what needs to be done to mitigate the impact the project.”
Rosina Roibal, program coordinator for the Bay Area Environmental Health Collaborative, has also spoken in favor of the guidelines. She said she’s worried that BAAQMD has delayed implementing the guidelines because of political pressure. “We support the guidelines,” Roibal said, adding that she’d like to see BAAQMD “not allow industry members and affordable housing developers to weaken these thresholds.”
Amidst the disagreement, the city of Oakland has quietly already implemented the guidelines in its own approval process for new developments. With the help of the planning commission, Jeff Angell of Oakland’s Housing Department added a checklist for air quality measurements to the applications for city funding that many non-profit developers seek when building in Oakland. Angell said the checklist covers the new guidelines and then some, “ensuring that the city council is in compliance with the law and that they jump through all the appropriate CEQA hoops.”
Non-profit developer East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) ran up against the checklist in late 2010 while renovating the California Hotel, the historic West Oakland building that the group is converting from single room occupancy units to larger apartments designed as affordable housing. Even though it’s an existing structure, the building sits directly next to Interstate 580, and the city required air pollutant testing. Tests eventually showed that the prevailing wind didn’t carry dangerous levels of pollutants to the building; the conversion was allowed to go forward without any additional mitigation requirements from the city. “It was, ‘Oh happy day, the wind blows the other direction,’” Angell said.
Nevertheless, project manager Karoleen Feng of EBALDC said that making sure the city’s air quality requirements were met cost the group extra time and money. “It’s something that we have to include in the cost,” said Feng.
Frank Flores, Director of Development for Oakland developer Madison Park and planning commissioner for the city of Emeryville, echoed Feng’s concerns. “Any time you put more restrictions or guidelines about what a developer can and can’t do, it’s going to create a longer timeline,” Flores said. “More restrictions mean less development, more costly development.”
Hilken said that BAAQMD hopes that a solution that will please both developers and air quality activists will lie in acquiring more detailed, local information about air pollutants. For example, instead of averaging the amount of diesel exhaust from all parts of an Interstate like 580, as the group does now, in future studies BAAQMD plans to include data about specific parts of the highway. He said having this information up front should prevent developers from having to do costly, lengthy procedures to show that air pollutants are not a danger—the kinds of studies that developers are worried about having to provide.
Amie Fishman, executive director of the East Bay Housing Coalition, an affordable housing advocacy group, said she hopes that the two goals—of providing both affordable housing near existing infrastructure and clean air for residents—can be met. “We want to make sure there’s not a conflict,” Fishman said. “It’s really critical to look at health and all of the issues that help maintain the highest quality of life for residents. But the alternative to developing in downtown Oakland is pushing [residents] out where there aren’t existing services and transportation.”
Update: A previous version of this story listed an organization called “Bay Area Coalition of Environmental Health Advocates.” The organization in question is the Bay Area Environmental Health Collaborative. Oakland North regrets the error.