Brownfields and Housing: Striking the Balance
It’s hard to escape headlines about the housing shortage and the social issues caused by everything from unaffordability pushing residents out further from jobs, to the homelessness crisis. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “The U.S. has a shortage of 7.3 million rental homes affordable and available to renters with extremely low incomes – that is, incomes at or below either the federal poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income, whichever is greater. Only 33 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households.“ Thankfully, there is growing momentum to build more housing and solve these problems, and growing public support to increase housing, even at the local level. State lawmakers in Washington, Oregon and California have placed housing production at the top of their agendas, promising more money, more tools, and less regulation to stimulate production. The Biden administration also has an ambitious housing plan, calling for better alignment of federal agencies and incentives for scaling up production, improving federal financing tools, and supporting factory-built solutions.
One question to consider is where? Where will new multifamily and single-family residences be built? Can neighborhood character be preserved if new, taller buildings are constructed? Will developers flock to the urban fringes such that patterns of sprawl deepen, thus creating ever-longer commute times, taxing infrastructure capacity, destroying open space, and putting more people in the path of wildfire? Will municipalities rezone commercial or industrial land to residential, and at what cost to economic development and local tax revenue? Will residents embrace housing within their communities?
Communities already grapple with these kinds of tradeoffs, and often the public disputes become heated. More and more, concerns about the lack of housing are competing with the ‘Not In My Backyard’ narrative that has persisted for so long. Support for affordable housing is high. While 8 in 10 Americans favor new affordable housing, according to a 2022 YouGov poll, will they welcome homes built on former brownfields? New housing has to go somewhere. I submit that some of our new housing can and should be built on brownfields. To be clear, sites should be cleaned up to high standards, and not all brownfields are suitable for homes.
A brownfield is any site with or suspected to have contamination. Developers often overlook brownfields for obvious reasons, but the idea is not new. Affordable and market rate housing have been built on former brownfields in the past, even former superfund sites. And in an era of limited buildable land supply, brownfields deserve a second look. Through protections such as bona fide prospective purchaser agreements, which establish that the landowner acquired ownership after the release of the hazardous substance, developers can access federal and local funds to remediate properties for redevelopment. Cities and towns can also use protections within the law to remediate abandoned or municipality-owned properties. The access to grants such as EPA Brownfield Grants, and with the Center for Creative Land Recycling’s (CCLR) technical assistance, brownfield redevelopment is put back on the table for consideration.
Consider that industries we now consider toxic were often located near town centers, especially those that had rivers and other waterways enabling transportation of materials by ships and barges, as well as easy discharge of waste and chemicals. Commercial strips that once contained gas stations, dry cleaners, auto repair shops, and other polluting uses are too often left fallow in low income districts. Repurposing properties once considered unusable can benefit communities and residents. Reuse eliminates, removes or contains contamination that otherwise will be left in place, and ensures a site is ready for reuse. Many such sites – once cleaned and protected – could be vibrant housing options in close proximity to jobs, transportation, and services. In other words, the kinds of places that make good residential neighborhoods.
Redevelopment of brownfields can also pay dividends in terms of environmental justice, given that brownfields exist almost exclusively in low-income, high-poverty census tracts. But sufficient time for engagement and culturally-specific community conversations need to be structured into the redevelopment process. Many communities are rightfully wary of efforts to develop housing on contaminated parcels, assuming that such efforts amount to a steering of underserved populations to less desirable locations. It’s critical in such cases to ensure that new housing serves a mix of populations and income levels (and isn’t limited to low-income renters), and that the community has the opportunity to get comfortable with what constitutes a “clean” site.
Developers need to partner with experts and be able to answer numerous questions, like: How will a site be cleaned up? How do we know it is safe? Will the cleanup process harm existing residents? How will negative impacts be mitigated? How will the project improve and protect the neighborhood?
A prominent example of redevelopment that does not perpetuate segregation of low-income people is the former El Toro Air Base in Irvine, Calif. This 4,700 acre superfund site has been meticulously remediated and transformed into large swaths of open space dubbed “The Great Park,” also includes thousands of homes for upper and middle income, and 720 affordable housing units. The two affordable housing communities in The Great Park were incorporated into a larger community to share in the amenities and take away stigma around affordable housing. The success of this project at the former air base should send a message that all types of housing can successfully be built on former brownfields. Residents of other communities should rest assured that their community is not being singled out when housing is proposed on formerly contaminated land.
Systemic problems of inequality cannot be solved by cleaning up contamination and reusing land alone. Additionally, not all brownfields are suitable for housing. Some kinds of contamination are easier to remove or mitigate than others. Sites with contamination that may not be suitable for housing can still provide benefits to communities in other ways, such as: transportation depots, EV charging stations, solar farms, or parks and open space. Brownfield redevelopment is but one powerful tool among many to increase access to opportunities.
Given the overlapping crises of climate change, housing insecurity, and racial inequities, repurposing properties that society had allowed to become contaminated must be a part of our overall housing development strategy.
For assistance with community engagement for brownfields redevelopment projects, or other ways that CCLR can help, contact us at [email protected].