The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) establishes a process that requires the full evaluation of all potential environmental impacts of a proposed project. Once a project is submitted, an initial study is prepared to determine whether a project will significantly impact the environment. The CEQA’s basic provisions include:
Disclosing the potential significant adverse impacts of a project to the public and decision-makers;
Mitigating significant impacts when feasible ;
Offering opportunities for the public and other agencies to become involved in the environmental review process;
Requiring decision-makers to consider the balance between development and the environment.
CEQA requires an environmental impact review (EIR) whenever a government agency proposes to approve a project (including housing projects) that may significantly affect the environment. Generally, an EIR must accurately describe the proposed project, identify and analyze each significant environmental impact expected to result from the proposed project, identify mitigation measures to reduce those impacts to the extent feasible, and evaluate a range of reasonable alternatives to the proposed project.
An EIR’s cost can range from a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars, depending on the project’s size. The added obligation to assemble such a report increases these projects’ costs significantly and creates substantial delays for these projects’ approval. California’s Legislative Analyst estimated that California’s ten largest cities average two and a half years to approve housing projects that require an EIR. Data also shows that CEQA guidelines inadvertently impact affordable housing construction in California. A 2018 study comparing market-rate versus affordable units indicated that a slightly higher proportion of affordable units (28 percent) were subject to EIR review than market-rate units (23 percent).
Housing Need and Homelessness in California
The statewide population of people experiencing homelessness has jumped nearly 17% since 2018, leaving another 150,000 California residents homeless. Compared to the rest of the country, California accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. population but has a quarter of the nation’s entire population of people experiencing homelessness. Between 2018 and 2019, the population of homeless individuals in Los Angeles County jumped by 12 percent. San Francisco experienced a 17 percent increase between 2017 and 2019, while Alameda County experienced a staggering 43 percent increase in the same two-year time frame.
California is also home to four of the country’s five most expensive residential markets—Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Orange County, and San Diego (Los Angeles is seventh). Data from the California Budget and Policy Center found thatmore than 4 in 10 households had unaffordable housing costs across California, exceeding 30 percent of household income. The CBPC also found that more than 1 in 5 households statewide faced severe housing cost burdens, spending more than half of their income toward housing expenses. As rents keep increasing, the population of people experiencing homelessness will also continue to rise.
Despite the Governor’s goal at the start of 2019 to increase housing production by 500,000 units each year for the next seven years (to reach his proposed 3.5-million pledge), the state’s Department of Finance found that only 112,000 new housing units had been authorized through the end of October 2019. California will need to make significant changes to expedite construction and reduce the cost of thousands of supportive housing and shelter projects for homeless individuals and families throughout California.
According to Assemblymember Santiago, AB 1907 aims to “help local governments address their homeless crisis by facilitating the construction of high-quality permanent supportive housing that adopts the core component of the ‘Housing First’ approach.” More specifically, this bill would extend the CEQA exemptions to the entire state to include emergency shelters and supportive housing projects. This bill would also allow affordable housing projects (projects reserved for individuals and families making 80% or less of a region’s median income) to be funded, in whole or in part, by the Multifamily Housing Program, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, or the Community Development Block Grant Program, to streamline CEQA regulations.
This bill also requires the lead agency to file a notice of exemption with the Office of Planning and Research and the county clerk if it determines that an activity is exempt from CEQA. The bill has a sunset date of January 1, 2029. This bill builds upon AB 1197 (Santiago), which streamlined CEQA regulations for the City of Los Angeles projects. This Committee supported AB 1197 at its August 27, 2019, meeting.
AB 1097 has already garnered wide-ranging support from numerous organizations and local leaders throughout the state. Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recognized his support by stating that AB 1907 “will streamline essential shelter, affordable and supportive housing projects across Los Angeles County and California.” Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu has also supported AB 1907 by introducing a Resolution to Council supporting the State bill.
Local leaders, including Ann Sewill, Vice President of the California Community Foundation, Ray Pear, Executive Director of the California Housing Consortium, and Elise Buik, President and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, have voiced their support. Also in support are organizations such as the Corporation for Supportive Housing, Southern California Association of NonProfit Housing, Abundant Housing Los Angeles, and the Central City Association. Additionally, local business councils, including the Orange County Business Council, Los Angeles Business Council, and Los Angeles Business Federation, have similarly voiced support for the new state bill.
Despite the substantial support already received, AB 1907 should anticipate opposition as well. CEQA has historically had active defenders among Democratic environmental and labor interest groups. Common arguments include that CEQA provides an essential process to promote sustainable development and union wage standards. Likewise, in 2019, over 100 organizations, including Sierra Club of California and the California Environmental Justice Alliance, sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, urging him not to pass legislation that either indefinitely weakened or significantly altered the statute of CEQA. Despite the possible opposition, AB 1907 has strong prospects due to the inclusion of a sunset date that allows the state to meet current housing demands through only a short-term bypass of environmental regulations.