Powerful opponents have emerged to fight Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to streamline affordable housing development — and their main reason isn't about building homes.
A coalition of labor and environmental organizations has come out against the proposal, arguing that the governor's plan would harm public health because it allows housing projects to sidestep the state's premier environmental law.
"It would be a disaster for local government, local communities, the environment and the citizens of California," said a May 18 letter to state lawmakers from the State Building & Construction Trades Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other labor and environmental groups.
Brown's plan would exempt urban housing projects that reserve a certain percentage of their development for low-income residents from detailed local government review. By making it easier to build houses, Brown believes the state can reduce California's major housing supply deficit, which is considered the primary driver of the broad home affordability crisis. A project only would qualify for Brown's exemption if it's planned on land already zoned for high-density residential development.
Now, even when a project fits zoning rules, many localities require additional approvals, including further review under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. This law requires developers to study a broad range of environmental effects and pay to lessen any negative effects. Housing projects that qualify under Brown's plan would allow developers to avoid the law.
"These developments would be gone from CEQA," said David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Economists and some housing advocates argue that that's the point. Existing laws can require multiple environmental reviews, all of which can be time-consuming and costly and sometimes lead to outcomes, such as blocking bike lanes, that aren't considered Earth-friendly. The law frequently is cited as a significant barrier to increasing housing supply.
Brown has talked tough about reforming CEQA for many years. But in a recent interview with Blueprint, a magazine affiliated with UCLA, Brown seemed resigned to leaving the law as is. Environmentalists and unions are too invested, Brown said, with unions blocking changes because they use it as leverage to force developers to agree to labor-friendly hiring rules.
"The unions won't let you because they use it as a hammer to get project labor agreements," Brown said.
Cesar Diaz, the legislative director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council, said labor has seen the state's environmental rules as a pillar in a broad strategy to protect California's environment and natural resources, as well as well-paying jobs for workers.
"We obviously want to continue seeing growth and see it happen in a smart way," Diaz said. "That will benefit our members and it will also benefit California citizens in terms of better air quality and other environmental protections."
Brown's office is sensitive to the housing proposal's CEQA implications. When unveiling the initiative, Brown's budget director insisted it did not make any changes to the environmental law. Technically, that's true because the plan doesn't amend the law, but simply allows projects to avoid it.
Ben Metcalf, the director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said local governments will have already completed an environmental review when zoning land for residential development. Because the governor's bill only targets projects in urban areas, that review is enough, especially given the need to spur housing growth, he said.
"Obviously, the state has a compelling interest here to make sure that we're getting this work done," Metcalf said.
Labor and environmental groups are just two of many taking aim at Brown's proposal. Local governments don't like it because it takes away some of their power. Some affordable-housing advocates believe the law should force developers to set aside more units for low-income residents. By contrast, the independent Legislative Analyst's Office contends the requirements are too strict for developers to use as an incentive to build.
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