Greens lead push to kill Gov. Brown’s housing measure

by Chris Reed | June 8, 2016 4:52 am

affhousingGov. Jerry Brown’s ambitious plan [1]to increase housing stock is off to a good start, but environmentalists are ramping up the pressure on Democrats in the state Legislature to either gut it or kill it. 

The governor’s plan, unveiled last month, came after months of coverage about spiraling housing costs in urban areas, starting with San Francisco, where average monthly apartment rents have soared past $3,500[2] over the past year. Brown wants to modify the California Environmental Quality Act to give pre-clearance to high-density projects that meet certain standards, including having a portion of units that are deemed affordable. He also wants to reduce the obstacles to obtaining building permits.

The strategy reflects an approach that has worked fairly well in New Jersey and Massachusetts. Its basics were recommended in a 2003 Public Policy Institute of California report[3], which emphasized the need for a statewide approach, given how ineffective local housing policies were in creating housing stock.

Brown’s initiative passed [4]the Assembly on a 46-7 vote on May 27 — perhaps reflecting that state lawmakers were hearing it from their constituents over the cost of rent and homes. But environmentalists are now loudly opposing the measure, and its passage in the state Senate is far less assured. Labor unions and trial lawyers, which have a history of using CEQA to force concessions or settlements from developers, also are opposing the plan.

A joint letter sent to every state lawmaker by unions, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other green groups last month warned that if adopted, Brown’s plan “would be a disaster for local government, local communities, the environment and the citizens of California.”

Brown laments difficulty of changing CEQA

In an interview [5]with a UCLA publication, Blue Print, the governor addressed the difficulty of amending CEQA, something supported by all living[6] California governors.

“The unions won’t let you because they use it as a hammer to get project labor agreements. The environmentalists like it because it’s the people’s document that you have to disclose all the impacts,” the governor said. “And, of course, the developers have a problem because ‘impact,’ boy, that’s a big word. Everything’s an impact.”

But as the Los Angeles Times recently reported[7], CEQA is not the only obstacle in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

In 1978, San Franciscans approved a ballot measure limiting changes in neighborhood density. In 1986, city voters backed a strict growth control initiative that capped commercial office construction.

In L.A., a 1987 court ruling limiting city officials’ discretion in approving building permits for projects with more than 50 units has had the effect [8]of “preventing construction until city officials prepare an environmental impact report or declare one unnecessary, until a full trial is held in the case, or until the Supreme Court changes the ruling,” if a project faces challenges under state environmental laws.

Brown’s proposed CEQA changes, if approved, would override the San Francisco laws and the Los Angeles court precedent. A Brown aide has called the local laws “micromanaging” that would prevent an adequate response to the housing crisis.

The League of California Cities, while acknowledging the seriousness of the issue, has joined unions and greens in opposing the governor’s plan.

Dan Carrigg, the league’s legislative director, told [9]the San Francisco Business Times, “We support local decision-making. When you have one of these one-size-fits all policies … sometimes what works in one spot doesn’t work well in another.”


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