Gov. Jerry Brown’s solution to California’s affordable housing crisis is to build, build, build, and not let local politics get in the way. Earlier this month, the governor introduced a bill under which proposed urban housing developments that meet local zoning requirements and reserve some portion of their units for low-income residents would be exempted from any additional environmental or local government review. The governor’s theory is that neighborhood opponents and other parochial interests have consistently blocked or downsized badly needed development projects, leading to a housing crisis in which California's major cities are increasingly unaffordable for most of its residents. As a result, the state, home to 12% of the nation’s population, has 21% of the nation’s homeless.
He’s right that California has failed to build enough housing to meet population growth. From 2003 to 2014, California cities and counties granted permits to just 45% of the housing units needed to meet demand, according to the state's Department of Housing and Community Development. Housing construction in coastal communities — the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, where two-thirds of Californians live — has dropped considerably in recent decades, while home prices and rents have increased to among the highest in the nation.
Brown believes that increasing the housing supply will lower housing costs. Again, he’s right.
But many attempts to build more housing, particularly in the coastal areas, have been stymied by concerns that development increases traffic, worsens air pollution, consumes open space, and turns suburban, low-slung communities into tall, dense, packed cities. And even when local governments’ “general plans” — their master plans for development — and zoning codes say “yes” to new housing, communities often find a way to say “no.”
Brown aims to make it harder, if not impossible, for communities to say no, at least to projects that come with a promise of affordable housing. This is good in concept, but his proposed fix takes a sledgehammer approach to the problem, demolishing not only unreasonable NIMBYism but also reasonable policies designed to protect communities. His bill would give by-right approval — meaning no additional review would be allowed — to multi-family housing projects that set aside at least 20% of the units for low-income residents. Developments near transit stops could be built by right if they set aside 10% or more. The projects would have to be consistent with local land-use laws.
The proposal assumes that all cities have modern, well-thought-out general plans and zoning codes that allow for new housing in the areas that make the most sense. It assumes that cities thoroughly considered the infrastructure, service and environmental impacts of new development when they wrote their general plans. If that were the case, then, sure, it would make sense to build new housing without additional review. But that’s not necessarily the case. Los Angeles, for example, has woefully outdated plans.
Brown has complained about the California Environmental Quality Act and he’s repeatedly carved out exemptions allowing individual projects to avoid lengthy environmental study and the threat of CEQA lawsuits. This bill would extend such exemptions to all urban developments that offer affordable housing, on the grounds that cities do a macro-level environmental analysis when they adopt their general plans and zoning regulations. But environmental groups argue that a broad, city-wide environmental study doesn’t address micro-level, site-specific concerns. For example, many cities have land zoned for residential development next to industrial operations and freeways. Should those projects be built without additional study of air pollution impacts or measures to protect future residents?
Brown’s bill should include a no-net loss policy. That means that when buildings are going to be demolished to make way for new, by-right development, the new project must include an equal or greater number of affordable units than were destroyed. Also, the bill shouldn’t preempt more stringent affordable housing requirements; some cities already require 20% or more affordable units in new construction.
Hopefully Brown and his administration will take the time and the care to listen to legislators, local elected officials, environmentalists and others to craft a law that will result in more affordable housing without running roughshod over communities and local control.
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