A San Diego lawmaker is laying the groundwork for more housing for low-income Californians to be built across the state.
A new law co-authored by South Bay Assemblymember David Alvarez, D-San Diego, will speed up the construction of some affordable housing developments. The idea is to protect those developments from CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act, a statewide law that gives individual residents the power to challenge construction projects in court.
Housing experts say the new law, AB 1449, is part of a growing effort by state lawmakers to speed up housing construction across California.
“We’re trying to support cities that want to do the right thing,” Alvarez said. “Those who want to build affordable housing, want to do it quickly, want to do it cheaper. And this law will help them do that.”
The pace at which new homes are being built in California is at the center of the state’s ongoing housing shortage. Growth has not kept pace with population growth, and the resulting crisis has exacerbated stark inequality and forced more and more people into homelessness.
The San Diego region experienced some of the strongest impacts this year. This month, the median rent in the city of San Diego was just under $3,200 according to Zillow — nearly $1,200 more than the national median.
“The housing crisis here really embodies the housing crisis that we’re seeing across the state of California, and across the country writ large,” said Valerie Stahl, a professor of urban planning at San Diego State University.
Increasingly, some lawmakers are placing a portion of the blame on CEQA, the landmark environmental law.
Enacted in 1970 amid the birth of the environmental movement, CEQA required state and local agencies to study the potential environmental impacts of proposed projects, share their findings with the public and find ways to prevent or recover any damages.
Importantly, it also empowers residents to enforce the law themselves by asking a court to order developers to conduct a more thorough environmental review.
That part of CEQA gives communities experiencing environmental hazards some legal leverage, but it also allows some residents who oppose housing development to delay the construction of new homes. across the state. Just this year, several groups in San Diego used it to try to block a city effort to add new housing near public transportation.
Accounts differ on how widespread this practice was, according to Stahl. But developers often cite even the possibility of facing a CEQA lawsuit as a deterrent.
“We don’t see CEQA as a major obstacle,” said Michael Massie, chief development officer of Southern California-based Jamboree Housing. “But sometimes its processes and more the threat of legal action to delay (development projects) are the real problems.”
AB 1449 will allow developers to wear those legal threats on certain projects. It adds an exemption to CEQA for affordable housing projects in dense urban areas where rent is limited to less than a quarter of the Area Median Income, which reaches $2,300 in San Diego County.
Major affordable housing developers across the state strongly supported the legislation, arguing it would facilitate more new housing projects.
“It’s hard to build anything in California for a number of reasons,” Massie said. “The more we can reduce the number of challenges, the less friction there is in developing affordable housing, the more housing we can build.”
Some environmental advocates have warned against sweeping changes to CEQA in the past. In a memo, the California Environmental Justice Alliance argued that changing the law to speed up or reduce environmental reviews would disproportionately harm poor residents and communities of color.
But AB 1449 faced little opposition. One organization that will argue against it is the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which says the law should include stronger protections for workers.
Alvarez said he hopes to see the new law bring relief to the state and the San Diego region.
“As a father, one who wants to see my children have a place to live in California, we have to solve this crisis,” he said.