Last fall, state lawmakers passed a narrowly tailored bill that exempted homeless shelters and permanent supportive housing projects in Los Angeles from the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, for five years. The bill was designed to make it faster and easier to build much-needed homeless housing and to block Not-In-My-Backyard lawsuits against such projects.
And it worked. Just two months after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the measure into law, a judge threw out a lawsuit seeking to stop the city from putting a 154-bed shelter on an abandoned bus yard in Venice. The city has granted exemptions to three other homeless shelters, and nine permanent supportive housing projects have requested the same protection, which can help shave months or even years off a project’s timeline.
Now Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) wants to expand the law statewide. He’s introduced Assembly Bill 1907, which would provide CEQA exemptions to fast-track homeless housing throughout the state. But his new proposal would go further than last year’s bill. AB 1907 would broaden the exemption so it also applies to any housing project reserved for low-income renters, as long as the project receives certain state or federal funds. The bill would sunset in 2029.
It’s a no-brainer to expand CEQA exemptions for homeless housing projects statewide. Of course the state should make it much easier to build homeless shelters. We’re in a crisis, with more and more people camping on sidewalks and sleeping in cars. In the 2019 count, California had more than 150,000 unsheltered homeless people — a 16% increase over the previous year.
But Santiago is also right to go further. If California really wants to slow the growing number of homeless residents, the state also has to dramatically increase the number of affordable housing units available. California is in a homelessness crisis in part because of the lack of affordable housing. One in three households statewide now spend more than half their income on rent, leaving many families one rent increase or missed paycheck away from losing their homes.
Building more subsidized housing that’s reserved for low-income residents can help get people off the street and help prevent the poorest, most vulnerable Californians from becoming homeless in the first place. The good news is that the state has put up billions of dollars to develop more affordable housing. But the state would make better use of those taxpayer dollars if it made sure the projects weren’t held up by needless bureaucracy or chicanery.
CEQA was enacted more than 40 years ago as a way to inform, protect and empower the public by requiring developers to disclose the environmental effects of their projects and to mitigate any harm they may cause. The law has been a vital tool that has made countless projects better since its inception.
To be clear, CEQA itself is not the problem. It’s how the law has been used — or abused. It’s too easy for opponents or competitors to tie up projects with costly and time-consuming lawsuits for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental protection. Cities compound the problem with regulations that apply CEQA to infill housing developments, even when the projects meet zoning and planning requirements. That forces developers to spend money and time on additional analysis and paperwork. It also enables critics to file CEQA lawsuits challenging the projects, which can delay them and jeopardize their financing.
It’s important to note that even if projects are exempted from CEQA, they still have to meet state regulations, local ordinances and building standards. Developers still have to analyze their building sites for potential threats in or to the environment, such as earthquake faults and soil contamination. And opponents can still file lawsuits challenging a CEQA exemption and demanding more study, although they face a higher burden in convincing a judge.
Of course, CEQA exemptions can also mean less scrutiny and less public input on projects. In a crisis, though, California has to make tradeoffs, and perhaps a little less process can get people off the streets faster.
Ideally, state lawmakers would have come up with a more comprehensive set of reforms that would preserve what’s best and most important about CEQA while making it harder for the law to be abused. But that’s proven, so far, to be an impossible task in Sacramento. Instead, legislators have repeatedly chosen to carve out CEQA fast-tracks for professional football stadiums, basketball arenas, corporate headquarters and swanky housing developments.
It’s about time that California lawmakers start cutting red tape for projects that benefit the state’s neediest residents.