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Moss Beach.
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Why does the Sierra Club oppose affordable housing?

The Loma Prieta chapter of the environmental organization says no to a Moss Beach development due to sustainability concerns

An affordable housing development on the Peninsula has an unlikely detractor: the local Sierra Club.

The development in question, a 100 percent affordable housing plan proposed by nonprofit developer MidPen Housing, is at Cypress Point in Moss Beach, a coastal community seven miles south of Pacifica.

The project would add 76 homes for individuals and families making between zero and 80 percent of the area median income, which comes in at $134,435.

The developer has held dozens of community meetings over four years about the project. But the debate raged on January 20 before the San Mateo Planning Commission. After hours of public comment, the planning commission decided—once again—to delay a decision on advancing the development of the critical homes.

Perhaps not at all surprising, the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club has opposed the Moss Beach project since its inception.

The Sierra Club’s views on housing development have been a thorny issues for years now.

The San Francisco chapter came under fire in 2015 for opposing three downtown developments, because they cast a shadow on nearby parks. Pro-density critics decried this move as blatant NIMBYism. Infill development has a positive environmental impact since it reduces the need for increased car use downtown.

Since this controversy, the California Sierra Club has gotten more vocal about supporting housing density; in 2018, the organization published a letter in support of affordable housing. But local chapters still remain autonomous over the projects under their jurisdiction.

Rendering courtesy of MidPen Housing

Housing is one area of focus for the Sierra Club Loma Prieta chapter, which has a rubric that incorporates affordability, transit access, and energy efficiency, among other factors, to decide whether or not to support a project.

The Sierra Club has penned letters of support for housing developments in the past, but when it comes to the Moss Beach project, the environmental outfit continues to have concerns. For example, it says the site is too far from community services like supermarkets, schools, and medical offices.

Also of worry? The development would have poor access to public transit. While the SamTrans route 17 runs along the coastline, from Pacifica down to Half Moon Bay, it only runs once an hour.

The chapter also says the project’s proximity to Highway 1, which the groups says is a safety hazard, is yet another concern.

“In response to concerns from Club members who live in the area we have visited the site and our initial impression is that there could hardly be a much worse location for affordable housing in the urbanized Mid-Coast,” the Sierra Club chapter said in 2016, noting that the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) required by residents of the development “would be significant.”

Affordable housing advocate Jordan Grimes, from Peninsula for Everyone, offered another perspective, arguing that the project could actually reduce vehicle miles traveled.

Job growth has far outpaced housing construction on the Peninsula, and the coastal region is no exception. Though the nearby town of Pacifica added 5,000 jobs between 2010 and 2019, it only added 67 new homes, according to the California Employment Development Department and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Grimes points out these workers must all commute from somewhere.

“I really am surprised that the Sierra Club is against this,” he said. “The way we see it is the VMT created by people having to live in Tracy and Gilroy and having to commute to their job is worse … It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the status quo.”

Peninsula Regional lead at the Sierra Club Loma Prieta chapter Mike Ferreira told Curbed SF that Peninsula for Everyone misses the point.

“That’s specious,” said Ferriera. “Vehicle miles traveled are not only when you’re traveling to a job. It’s going to schools and libraries and doctors and boys and girls clubs.”

Grimes also mentioned that the affordable housing might appeal to an existing constituency in Moss Beach: homeless people living in recreational vehicles along the coast.

Sonja Trauss, a San Francisco-based housing advocate who attended meetings in support of the project, agrees with Grimes. When there’s job growth without home growth in a region, people end up doubled up in homes or living out of their cars.

“It’s already the case that there are more and more cars in each driveway,” said Trauss. “You guys are against density, but it’s happening anyway.”

The bulk of the homes at Cypress Point would be available to renters classified by HUD as extremely low or very low income. These renters make between zero and 50 percent of the Area Median Income, or up to $62,000 for a family of four.

“Those units are extremely hard to come by in San Mateo County,” said Grimes.

MidPen Housing corroborates numbers about local job growth. The developer notes there are 11,000 local jobs along the Peninsula coast. Forty-five percent of these workers commute 10 miles or more to work, and 68 percent make less than $40,000.

A majority of the homes in the project will be reserved for applicants with jobs in the area.

MidPen says it selected the Cypress Point site for affordable housing due to its proximity to low-wage jobs; hospitality, food service, construction, and manufacturing jobs are common on the coast. Plus, its options were limited when choosing a coastal site.

Rendering of the Cypress Point development.
Image courtesy of MidPen Housing

San Mateo County has only designated three regions along the coast as available for affordable housing development. MidPen reviewed the other two sites, but determined that they were not “viable for development.”

Not all environmental organizations take the same approach to evaluating housing development as the Sierra Club.

The Greenlining Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on racial justice, promotes sustainable and equitable housing development.

Greenlining’s environmental equity director, Alvaro Sanchez, said he takes a holistic view towards evaluating new development rather than taking a stance on individual developments.

“I see obviously merit on both sides,” he said. “From our perspective, there’s a severe housing shortage. I would encourage the Sierra Club to try to figure out a win-win situation in order to ... build more housing and to reduce pollution.”

Developers can address sustainability concerns without abandoning a planned development.

In other areas where transit service is less than adequate, the Greenlining Institute has advocated for the inclusion of electric vehicle chargers in affordable housing developments.

While advocacy to increase bus service in the Moss Beach community has stalled in the past, an influx of new residents could reignite calls for more public transit. Increased ridership makes bus lines more economically feasible.

The next step in advancing the Cypress Point project is for the San Mateo County Planning Commission to update the county’s planning documents to allow for the construction of the project. This is the decision that they delayed last Wednesday.

This rezoning alone would not be approval of the project. The county would have to separately approve the project in a future planning meeting before construction could start on the project.

The Sierra Club is pressing on in its opposition to the project.

“There’s a lot of ego around this project,” said Ferreira, referring to MidPen leadership. “Someone needs to say that the emperor has no clothes.”

If the Sierra Club gets its way, MidPen would have to start the planning process from scratch at a new site—and residents in need of affordable housing would have to wait.

Delaying affordable housing construction could also have ramifications for the county. State law mandates that each community constructs a certain amount of affordable housing, as determined by the Bay Area’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation.

If a community that has failed to meet their target denies qualifying projects, they are subject to legal action.

The California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, led by Sonja Trauss at the time, sued the city of San Mateo for similar reasons in 2017. The lawsuit has put San Mateo County officials on high alert and could influence their decision on Cypress Point.

“It’s not at all surprising that it takes five years to build housing,” said Trauss. “It’s tragic.”

The problem with the Sierra Club’s opposition is not only that it delays construction, said Peninsula for Everyone’s Grimes, but that it bolsters NIMBY opposition.

A local group called Resist Density has joined the Sierra Club in opposition to the project, but unlike the Sierra Club, they are opposed to high-density development altogether. Other “projects of concern” on their website include the designation of two RV parks.

“The anti-density group is hammering hard on the Sierra Club’s opposition to this,” noted Grimes.

“It’s greenwashing,” added Trauss. “This is it.”

Still, Ferreira said at last Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting that it’s “premature” to move forward with the project given outstanding concerns.

“We can’t fall into the trap of [building] anything anywhere,” Ferreira said. “Because you’ve got to live with it.”