Housing factions use two state laws as weapons

In summary

As California steps up pressure on local governments to increase housing production, two state laws are used by warring factions.



In the trenches of California’s seemingly perpetual clashes over housing, warring factions are using two-decade-old state laws as weapons.

One is the famous – or infamous – California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), signed by the Governor at the time. Ronald Reagan in 1970, which requires authorities to determine whether proposed developments have environmental impacts that need to be mitigated.

The other, much less known, is the California Housing Liability Act (HAA), signed by Reagan’s successor, Jerry Brown, in 1982 to prevent local governments from rejecting housing projects for no good reason.

Those who oppose specific developments, especially high-density apartments for low- and middle-income families, often invoke the CEQA, claiming they have negative environmental impacts on their communities, such as the increase in traffic.

Construction unions also employ the CEQA, threatening to use its provisions to delay or kill projects unless developers agree to use union labor.

In response, housing advocates, including project developers, are invoking the HAA, accusing opponents of violating its housing-friendly provisions, which have been strengthened in recent years, and of suing or complaining to the national housing agency.

Housing disputes have been particularly acute in San Francisco, whose left-leaning Democratic politicians are often sharply divided over housing issues. Last year, their incessant bickering manifested itself in a confrontation over a 27-story, 495-unit building proposed for a former department store parking lot.

After years of wrangling and changes, the 469 Stevenson Street project received CEQA approval from the city’s planning commission, but San Francisco’s governing legislative body, the Board of Supervisors, voted 8-3 to reverse committee actionagreeing with opponents of the project that it had potentially serious environmental impacts.

The State Department of Housing and Community Development immediately became interested, open an investigation and send a letter to the cityclaiming the council’s rejection of the scheme over ‘various vague concerns’ could put it in breach of the Housing Liability Act.

The council’s overthrow was particularly infuriating for San Francisco state lawmakers, who have been particularly aggressive advocates of pro-housing policies. “When San Francisco does this, it sends a very negative message to the rest of the region,” Sen. Scott Wiener told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We pushed other cities to do their part, to be better, so when San Francisco does something like that, it puts the proverbial turd in the punch bowl.”

The dust on 469 Stevenson had another impact. Assemblyman Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco, introduced legislation that, if enacted, would make it harder for project opponents to use the CEQA and easier for developers to invoke the HAA. .

Learn more about the lawmakers mentioned in this story

State Senate, District 11 (San Francisco)

State Senate, District 11 (San Francisco)

How he voted 2019-2020

Liberal
Conservative

District 11 Demographics

Race/Ethnicity

latin

16%

White

37%

Asian

37%

Black

5%

Multi-race

4%

Voting register

Dem

62%

G.O.P.

seven%

no party

27%

Other

4%

Campaign Contributions

Senator Scott Wiener took at least
$859,000
from Finance, insurance and real estate
sector since he was elected to the Legislative Assembly. This represents
13%
of his total campaign contributions.

State Assembly, District 19 (San Francisco)

State Assembly, District 19 (San Francisco)

How he voted 2019-2020

Liberal
Conservative

District 19 Demographics

Race/Ethnicity

latin

14%

White

33%

Asian

44%

Black

3%

Multi-race

4%

Voting register

Dem

58%

G.O.P.

9%

no party

28%

Other

4%

Campaign Contributions

Asm. Phil Ting took at least
$2.4 million
from Work
sector since he was elected to the Legislative Assembly. This represents
32%
of his total campaign contributions.

The measurement, Assembly Bill 2656, rode through the Assembly on a strongly bipartisan vote and is awaiting action in the Senate. It also enjoys the support of dozens of pro-housing organizations, while environmental groups and construction unions oppose it because it would make the CEQA a less powerful tool.

A Senate analysis of the bill frames its effect on the growing conflict between the two laws, saying it places local governments between “a rock and a hard place” with “conflicting mandates to approve new housing under the HAA, but simultaneously to adequately account for the environmental impacts of housing under CEQA.

This is absolutely correct, and it indicates once again that it is high time for Governor Gavin Newsom and the legislature to fundamentally revise the CEQA, whose original objective of protecting natural resources has been distorted in the beyond recognition.

Former Governor Jerry Brown once called CEQA reform “the work of the Lord, but was never willing to undertake the heavy lifting that it would require.

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