Aiming to speed up the construction of affordable housing and homeless shelters in California, new legislation would make all new low-income housing projects exempt from a key environmental law that has been used to restrict development.
Assembly Bill 1907, introduced Wednesday, would allow low-income housing projects and shelters to bypass the California Environmental Quality Act, the landmark 50-year-old state law known as CEQA that has been credited with helping to preserve California’s natural beauty but also blamed for stymieing construction.
“People are homeless, rents are too high and we just can’t sit here and say the status quo is working,” said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), the bill’s author. “We have to push hard to get affordable housing done, emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing. We’ve got to say enough is enough.”
CEQA requires developers to disclose a project’s potential environmental effects on the surrounding community and take steps to reduce or eliminate them. Doing so is often a time-consuming and costly process made longer by lawsuits that can last years.
AB 1907 builds off a law Santiago authored last year that eliminated CEQA requirements for homeless housing projects and shelters in the city of Los Angeles.
That law was spurred by lawsuits filed by neighborhood activists in Venice against a proposed shelter there. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge rejected the activists’ lawsuit in December, citing the new state law.
AB 1907 not only extends the CEQA exemptions that are now law in L.A. to the entire state, but goes further by allowing affordable housing developments — projects reserved for individuals and families making 80% or less of a region’s median income — to also bypass CEQA.
The new bill is one of the most significant efforts in recent memory from a Democratic lawmaker to change the environmental law. CEQA has staunch defenders among powerful Democratic environmental and labor interest groups, who contend its effects on stopping housing are overblown. They also argue that it provides an essential process to promote sustainable development and union wage standards.
Last spring, more than 100 environmental and preservationist organizations, including Sierra Club California, Natural Resources Defense Council and California Environmental Justice Alliance, sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, urging the state to keep the law intact.
“Major changes to CEQA would pose a significant threat to our natural environment, including critical resources like clean air and clean water, and to California’s most disadvantaged communities,” the letter read.
Santiago, whose district includes skid row, said he expects his bill would be narrowed as it works its way through the Legislature. But he said he believes that lawmakers need to debate anything slowing the production of affordable and homeless housing.
Last year, California’s homeless population grew 16% to 151,000, more than a quarter of the national figure.
“This is a crisis of biblical proportions,” Santiago said. “Families are literally living on the streets. We need to do something.”