Tuesday, November 7, 2017 Blog · News

Housing crunch, but we can help. Curing the budget deficit and climate change at the same time! CO2 levels Homo erectus would have experienced. Replacing Scott Pruitt. Caring for oysters.

by Dana Beach


After almost suffocating under an avalanche of important news, I have finally winnowed this week’s news summary to a few themes.  I’ll start with housing.

Sunday’s Post and Courier featured a front-page article on Charleston’s housing affordability crisis, proclaiming that it is “on pace to mirror San Francisco’s.”

Post and Courier: Charleston’s housing crisis is on pace to mirror San Francisco’s. Shunning development could make it worse.

Housing affordability in the metropolitan area is indeed a critical and growing problem, but the facts do not justify the comparison.  (Neither was it illuminating to read about a family that, inexplicably, chose to live in Kingstree and commute 150 miles round trip to Charleston.)

According to the National Association of Home Builders’ periodic review of home prices, Charleston’s affordability index (average price compared to average family income) ranks 167 out of 233, with San Francisco claiming the bottom (least affordable) slot.  As another point of reference, the median home price in our metro area was $267,100, compared to San Francisco’s stratospheric median of $900,000.

Even so, the rapid growth of South Carolina’s coastal metropolitan areas – consistently the fastest growing on the Eastern Seaboard – combined with misguided land use policies, has created a major problem for a substantial portion of the population.

The article is overloaded with vignettes of people who have had trouble finding housing, but it eventually gets to the important point:

Stockton Williams, executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, said residents have legitimate fears about growth leading to more traffic and crowded schools. But blocking new developments drives up housing costs when the supply is low, making the area even less affordable, he said.

“A big, principle driver of the housing supply shortage is the resistance at the local level — the neighborhood level — to virtually any type of new housing development,” Williams said.

The short story is that the region’s two largest cities, Mt. Pleasant and Charleston, have limited apartment construction in part or all of their jurisdictions – Mt. Pleasant’s two-year ban on new apartments being the most severe.  On top of that, the City of Charleston has sanctioned an explosion of hotels and short-term rentals downtown.  People who work full-time in the region and need to live near their jobs are squeezed from both sides – too many hotels competing for land and too few housing options.  (One result is that downtown Charleston is depopulating, but simultaneously becoming more congested.  To paraphrase the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “Nobody lives there anymore.  It’s too crowded.”)

This subject is complicated.  At the Conservation League, we’ve been conducting research that we hope will shed some light on the problem.  You’ll hear more on this shortly.

Back to San Francisco, here is an insightful piece from Grist about a relatively new phenomenon – “YIMBY” (Yes In My BackYard) environmentalists, who are advocating for more affordable housing.

Grist: Enviros and developers: a love story

From the article:

Environmentalists are usually thought of as folks who are trying to stop something: a destructive dam, an oil export terminal, a risky pipeline. But when it comes to housing, new-school environmentalists… understand that it’s necessary to support things, too. To meet California’s ambitious goals to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, regulators say the state must build dense, walkable neighborhoods that allow people to ditch their cars.

In the meantime, one part of the affordability puzzle is on the ballot today.  Charleston residents will have the opportunity to vote on a proposed $20 million housing bond to fund additional housing for low to moderate income families.  It’s an important initiative and, as this Post and Courier editorial says, it warrants our support.

Post and Courier: Editorial board: Vote ‘yes’ for affordability 

And now another complicated but important subject…  This next article from Bloomberg News reports on a way to pay for the tax cut now being debated in Congress AND simultaneously address climate change.

Bloomberg: There’s one unspeakable fix that would help pay for the GOP’s tax cuts

From the article:

Paying for tax reform is easy—as long as the White House and Congress don’t mind fixing climate change at the same time.

That’s the counterintuitive pitch of Robert Litterman, a financial economist who became famous on Wall Street in the 1990s for co-inventing a method (PDF) for allocating assets within a portfolio. He went on to become Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s top risk manager and then led its quantitative asset management investments until he left in early 2010. Today, he’s the chairman of the Risk Committee at Kepos Capital.

The article goes on to explain that Mr. Litterman is advocating a substantial tax on carbon (something our very own Bob Inglis, a former congressman from the Upstate, has relentlessly promoted).

Litterman justifies the tax as a way to correct the market’s failure to properly price products that damage the environment, (those that produce high levels of greenhouse gases).  This is known as “internalizing” the social costs of consumption.  Another way to put this is that we now subsidize carbon-based energy sources by spreading the costs and the risks to current and future generations, and to all other life forms on the planet.  An accurately-structured carbon tax would end that subsidy, with the added benefit of helping balance the budget and reduce the deficit.  What’s not to like?

The next two articles reinforce the urgency of reducing carbon emissions.  This one from CNBC reports that atmospheric carbon levels are now higher than they have been in 800,000 years.

CNBC: Carbon dioxide in atmosphere hits highest level in 800,000 years, study says

Eight hundred thousand years is a long time!  Homo sapiens wouldn’t appear for another 600,000 years, but some of our ancestors were around, included Homo erectus and a handful of other fairly inconsequential hominids.  Neanderthals had yet to arrive.  There was a 10-foot-tall orangutan, which would have spent much of his time watching out for smilodons (often called saber-toothed tigers).  And here’s the kicker – the temperature was 11 degrees warmer than it is today and the sea level was 100 feet higher.

This next article, from National Public Radio, reveals that the most extensive U.S. climate study yet reinforces earlier conclusions about causes and impacts.

NPR: Massive government report says climate is warming and humans are the cause

From the article:

It is “extremely likely” that human activities are the “dominant cause” of global warming, according to the most comprehensive study ever of climate science by U.S. government researchers. 

The climate report, obtained by NPR, notes that the past 115 years are “the warmest in the history of modern civilization.” The global average temperature has increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over that period. Greenhouse gases from industry and agriculture are by far the biggest contributor to warming.

The findings contradict statements by President Trump and many of his Cabinet members, who have openly questioned the role humans play in changing the climate.

“I believe that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in an interview earlier this year. “There’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.”

That is not consistent with the conclusions of the 600-plus-page Climate Science Special Report, which is part of an even larger scientific review known as the fourth National Climate Assessment. The NCA4, as it’s known, is the nation’s most authoritative assessment of climate science. The report’s authors include experts from leading scientific agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Department of Energy, as well as academic scientists.

I have to admit that I’m becoming “inured” (to borrow Frank Bruni’s phrase) to the stream of counterfactual pronouncements coming from the Administration, and especially from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

But William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator under President Richard Nixon, is not inured.  He is deeply concerned.  In this op-ed, Ruckelshaus warns that Pruitt is “losing public trust,” and that spells big trouble for an agency that relies on support and understanding from citizens and industry.

Post and Courier: Ruckelshaus op-ed: EPA’s Pruitt is losing public trust

Ruckelshaus explains that it is crucial that the EPA and its Administrator operate honestly and transparently, something he attempted to do that when he ran the agency.  But, he says:

Scott Pruitt, the current EPA administrator, is taking the absolute opposite approach.

Pruitt operates in secrecy. By concealing his efforts, even innocent actions create an air of suspicion, making it difficult for a skeptical public to give him the benefit of the doubt.

If Mr. Ruckelshaus would like a temporary job, (say, three years and a couple of months), I know exactly where we could use him!

Last week I revealed that, based on recent research, we know that oysters have ears, and are sensitive to, and harmed by, the increasing clamor of human industry in the ocean.  This article by Bo Petersen with the Post and Courier reports that South Carolina oysters are facing increasing pressure not only from the noisy ocean, but also from overharvesting, but that the Lowcountry is still a relative stronghold of this charismatic bivalve.

Post and Courier: South Carolina holding its own against mounting stresses on fragile oyster beds

Says Bo:

Oyster beds are considered to be in precipitous decline worldwide, with some 85 percent of them lost in the past century. About a third of the historic oystering grounds in the state have been lost since the World War I, and more disappear every year.

As a case in point, in the days before industrial oyster harvesting, the entire volume of the Chesapeake Bay was filtered by oysters every three days, thus producing clear, clean water, and thus, beautiful, healthy seagrass beds.  Today oyster reefs have been so reduced that the filtering process takes longer than a year.

So, oyster bed protection and restoration benefits not only those of us who enjoy occasional winter oyster roasts, but the entire coastal aquatic ecosystem.

And finally, speaking of aquatic ecosystems, you may have seen that Laura Cantral, who has headed the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, will become the second executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, starting sometime in January.  Here are two articles on the transition, from Bo Petersen with the Post and Courier and Sammy Fretwell with the State.

Post and Courier: Ocean policy expert to take over Coastal Conservation League after Dana Beach steps down

The State: Influential conservation group gets new leader to replace Dana Beach

This is an exciting time for us at the Conservation League!  You’ll hear more about Laura shortly.  And don’t forget to vote!


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