Orange County Register: Trim the thicket of hindrances to housing construction

August 6, 2017

Legislative leaders have promised to tackle housing affordability when they return to session later this month. They need to make a concerted, successful effort to relieve some of the regulations that enable not-in-my-backyard-ism and stymie housing construction — and not just pile on more taxes.

Even some Democrats have lost their stomach for new taxes or tax increases after passage of the gas-tax package and the cap-and-trade deal. California leaders may need to divert some revenue to affordable-housing efforts but, more important, they need to stop what’s stopping the construction of housing, affordable and otherwise.

One culprit is CEQA — the California Environmental Quality Act. It’s widely recognized that the act is abused for purposes that have nothing to do with the environment, such as to leverage union demands, thwart rival businesses and stall development where neighbors don’t want it.

Gov. Jerry Brown said a few years ago that reforming CEQA was “God’s work,” but apparently he is content to leave it to God. Nor, frankly, do we expect to see the Legislature act on CEQA reform anytime soon.

What does stand a chance is state regulation of the regulators — local officials who too often block developments at the behest of homeowners who don’t want housing for others built in their vicinity.

Brown put forth a plan last year to reduce some local obstacles to building for any developer who pledged to set aside some units for low-income residents, but his proposal went nowhere.

This year’s Senate Bill 35, by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would streamline the approvals process for new construction by limiting local officials’ authority — but only when they are failing to meet established housing goals.

Specifically, cities that are on track to meet their housing goals at all income levels — the goal set in the Regional Housing Needs Assessment by the Department of Housing and Community Development — would not be subject to the streamlining of approvals in SB35. (Currently there are no teeth in the RHNA goal.) But a city that has failed to approve its share of housing, leaving other cities to pick up the slack, would have to approve projects only on the basis of whether they meet SB35’s qualifying criteria and pass design review.

The League of California Cities objects, of course, that Wiener’s bill would undermine local land-use authority. The league argues that affordable-housing funding has slowed to a trickle, and that SB35 should at minimum be amended to provide a “safe harbor” for cities that can demonstrate good-faith efforts to meet housing goals. We concur; Wiener should work with the league to shield cities that are doing their best but can’t meet affordable-housing goals.

Normally, we don’t favor state rules that push aside local discretion, but we have to look at reality. Housing availability and affordability constitute a crisis in California, and jurisdictions that are sluffing off their share of the needed effort must be pushed.

Nicholas J. Marantz, an assistant professor of urban planning and public policy at UC Irvine, analyzed the effect of a Massachusetts law similar to SB35 and found that it eased — but admittedly did not solve — housing shortages in the Boston area. “[T]he Massachusetts model shows how California could effectively encourage local governments to help address the state’s housing affordability crisis,” he wrote in an L.A. Times commentary.

An amended and approved SB35 would be a step in the right direction.

Read the editorial on the Orange County Register