California’s AB 551 bill was passed in 2013 with the intention of increasing urban agricultural activity in communities throughout the state. As urban agriculture has been lauded as benefiting low-
Food Tank (FT): What are the goals of AB 551?
Antonio Roman-Alcalá and Erin Havens (AE): AB 551 was intended by its proponents to increase use of vacant land in cities and to increase land security for urban farmers across California through tax incentives for landowners. Under the law, and following passage of associated legislation at the county or city level, landowners allowing urban agriculture on their property for five years or more can apply for reductions in their property taxes. Some (but not all) proponents of the bill expected it would support “food justice” efforts insofar as urban farmers taking advantage of the law would be growing food for low-income people and communities of color, and farms would be based on the leadership of such communities. AB 551 was to help expand urban agriculture broadly, but also (to some people) it was thought it might help food justice-driven urban agriculture.
FT: Where has the bill been implemented?
AE: While the bill took effect statewide in 2014, it requires cities and counties to create “Urban Agriculture Incentives Zones” in order to be implemented. Some counties have adopted local ordinances: Sacramento County, Santa Clara County, Los Angeles County, and San Diego County have all passed the act for their unincorporated areas. But fewer cities (i.e. incorporated areas within those counties) have implemented the legislation. As far as we know, these include San Francisco and Sacramento. San Jose (the main city in Santa Clara County and the third largest in the state) has not passed the act for local implementation.
FT: Who is most impacted by the bill?
AE: It is unclear at this point who has been impacted most—or if the measure has made a tangible difference for many communities seeking food justice. Partly, this is due to the measure taking time and requiring coordination across multiple jurisdictions before it is applied. The few successful applications that we are familiar with for the incentives were for preexisting projects like the 18th and Rhode Island Permaculture garden in San Francisco and Oak Park Sol (and one other project) in Sacramento. Entrepreneurial efforts like “Farmscape LLC” in Oakland and Los Angeles have also expressed interest, but as far as we know neither city has passed the ordinance.
One could argue that insofar as the legislation has been activated and utilized, those impacted most are the landowners who are experiencing lower taxes. Additionally, urban agriculture organizations could benefit from short-term access to otherwise vacant urban land for their projects. However, there are indications that the law could, in fact, have regressive effects for food justice concerns. It limits the lease time (five years), making it challenging to develop a long-term and impactful farm project, and the gardens make areas occupied by low-income residents more appealing to new, richer, whiter populations, which are likely to enhance forces of gentrification by increasing property values.
As we said in the report, “while tax incentives for private landowners may bring small victories for urban agriculture, they are simply not enough to address the structural inequalities embedded in California’s land and food system.”
FT: If the bill is implemented at the local level, what are the consequences for urban agriculture and local communities?
AE: The implementation of the bill offers varying consequences, depending on the character of implementation and those involved. In Oakland, with implementation having been pushed by the for-profit firm Farmscape, with the help of real estate lobbyists, the effect would likely be unhelpful for local poor communities, and would potentially contribute to the gentrification of their neighborhoods by allowing white-led and white/middle-class-serving urban farming projects to expand and elevate property values. In L.A., where community organizations have pushed for particular conditions on incentive zones permits (such as community consultation about each project, preference for projects led by grassroots people of color organizations, and resources made available for low-income community projects), the consequences could be more amenable to food justice outcomes.
FT: What other policies would you suggest instead of or in addition to AB 551?
AE: Urban farming just like other urban land use decisions is subject to the economic whims of investors and developers (and to a lesser degree, small property owners), and their political power within local governments. As such, no single policy could meaningfully address the challenges of low-income and working class communities seeking land access and stable land tenure (whether for urban agriculture or other uses such as affordable housing).
That said, there are promising initiatives to mitigate the worst problems caused by our capitalist economic system’s prioritization of high-dollar-return uses of land and systemic disinterest in and unaccountability to the needs of working people. These include:
- De-commodifying land and preserving it as affordable and accessible through community land trusts (CLTs). In short, CLTs are nonprofits that own land for constitutionally dictated purposes (such as affordable housing) and lease land for truly long terms (usually 99 years), preventing profit-making speculation from buying and selling land. CLTs are beginning to take on urban farming as an important complementary land use to housing. Troy Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, is a successful example of using a CLT for urban agriculture.
- Expanding affordable housing and development (including integrated food producing gardens) through dedicated municipal/governmental funding sources. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston is a great example of a large-scale combined effort of community organizations and city government to prevent displacement and enable the community to develop its own neighborhood (including food productive capacity).
- Restrictions on the development of market-rate housing and commercial spaces, as well as high taxes on the often speculative sales of property in urban markets. Examples of restrictions include requiring a high percentage of affordable units in new market-rate developments and implementing rent control for tenants. Tax money from speculative sales can be redistributed towards CLTs and other means of preserving affordable and long-term access.
- Allowing and enhancing community groups’ access to public lands for food production (e.g. ‘edible parks,’ community gardens).
- Concerted efforts to link urban communities to peri-urban and rural lands for integrated “foodshed” development. Cities like San Francisco own large acreages of land outside the city which are not currently managed in a way that benefits the food security of city residents, and could be managed by city-community-farmer partnerships as “commons.”
- Ultimately, we should not expect a local or state policy to develop equitable use of land for the creation of a sustainable and just food system. A federal policy of redistributive land reform might help, but is unlikely to come to pass through mere policy advocacy (especially in the current political moment, but even under progressive administrations).
Major reforms in land use decisionmaking can only come out of mass movements to recreate the social contract and redefine what collective management of land looks like. Substantive change can only result from a combination of avenues of action, including:
- Leveraging public property towards the needs of marginalized sectors of society. Too much government-owned property (such as public university land) is currently used to benefit profit-making institutions instead of the people.
- Opposing and dismantling private property regimes, and their institutions through law—i.e. undermining acceptance of the normalized idea that owners’ economic profits are the most important right to be protected in land use decisionmaking.
- Expanding and improving “commons” methods of land management. Commons are resources that are used by groups of people who share management responsibilities as well, managing them outside or alongside government regulations and participation in markets. Farmland owned by a CLT that is managed by residents of a low-income housing development and whose produce is used for community self-provisioning would be an example of an urban farming “commons.”
FT: How do they mitigate problems which AB 551 does not?
AE: In the case of CLTs, these strategies enable long-term stability far above what AB 551 does. Land trusts can embed democratic community control into land use in a way that is not even mentioned much less addressed through tax incentives for landowners. Urban farm commons land management frameworks, laid on top of land trust forms of ownership, can create platforms for education and politicization around land issues, thus building the political will necessary to change land use norms and regulation in society writ large (or at least in national policy spaces). Public land could also provide greater security and community control for urban agriculture, as it is less likely to be developed in the short term.