Photo: JulieAndSteve / Flickr

Environmentalists Respond to Governor Brown’s Affordable Housing Bill

Should a novel solution to the housing crisis come at the expense of environmental oversight? That’s the question on the minds of some critics concerning Governor Jerry Brown’s affordable housing plan.

Illustration by Lalo Alcarez

Illustration by Lalo Alcarez

The cost of living in California for low-income renters and prospective homeowners has reached a tipping point, yet a solution for change has eluded planners. Contending with the issue is a new housing proposal that would streamline the building process by reducing oversight at the local and residential level. It is presumed that such reviews delay the building process and are both time-consuming and costly.

California’s rigid land use regulations have left developers feeling like their hands are tied. The frustration comes in part from strict requirements laid out under the California Environmental Protection Act (CEQA), the state’s broadest reaching environmental law. With the enactment of CEQA in 1970, the state wove environmental accountability into the fabric of California’s land use laws, requiring extensive review on the ecological and health impacts of construction projects.

If passed as part of the governor’s revised budget, the bill promises $400 million in funding towards affordable housing on the condition that those requirements are suspended at the project level.

Eastside Gold Line and Los Angeles skyline. (Image Credit: JulieAndSteve / Flickr)

Eastside Gold Line and Los Angeles skyline. (Image Credit: JulieAndSteve / Flickr)

Who Supports the Bill?

The governor’s goal is to add more housing supply to a market lacking affordable options and to create a reward system for developers that include it in their plans. The percentage requirements vary from five to 20 percent, depending on proximity to transit and whether the project accounts for very low-income housing. Proponents say the bill will further encourage multi-income housing in urban areas and discourage urban sprawl into green and undeveloped spaces.

The Los Angeles River cutting through East Los Angeles. (Photo Credit: kla4067 / Flickr)

Urban sprawl of Los Angeles. (Photo Credit: kla4067 / Flickr)

Delivering on the promise of adequate housing, faster, would require the easing of land use regulations in favor of the “right-to” housing, the driving force behind the bill. The move would limit the authority of neighborhood residents to decide which projects break ground and the type of housing they pursue. As it stands, that decision almost always tends toward luxury condominiums and rentals.

In a letter to Bay Area state senators and assembly members, urban research think tank SPUR joined their constituents in support of the bill, mirroring the governor’s language on policy change. “There is no way we will ever have enough money to buy everyone who wants one a subsidized affordable unit. We simply cannot address the affordability crisis unless we are simultaneously investing in housing subsidies while at the same time changing the state’s planning system to bring more supply on line,” the letter reads.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

SPUR calls the proposal a step in the right direction, an active move to halt the displacement of historical residents and protect the Bay Area’s reputation as a haven for diversity, both cultural and economic. It says the key to progress is a combination of funding and market supply, both of which suffer when red tape and permitting wars strangle the process.

Elected officials like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are on board with the proposal, citing its potential to alleviate a housing crisis that affects Los Angeles constituents in a major way. L.A. renters devote an average 48 percent of their monthly income to rent, according to a Zillow study. As more residents are forced out of urban areas and homelessness runs rampant, relief in any form looks like an oasis.

The Opposition

The opposition is comprised of environmental groups and labor unions. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) joins groups like the California Labor Federation to oppose the initiative because it minimizes their role in the planning process. In a letter addressed to the assembly and senate, they say the broadly written measure could have a perverse effect on sprawl and may actually harm the people it purports to help.

Citing threats to clean water and the increased rates of asthma amongst low-income youth, they note that low-income constituents suffer disproportionately from health problems due to hazardous materials. Only CEQA provides protection from these potentialities by mandating environmental oversight and bringing the review process to light.

The North Santa Fe Apartments, designed by Rodriguez Associates Architects and Planners, sits across from the transit Vista Transit Center in Vista, California. Governor Brown’s new plan requires a 10 percent quota for affordable housing projects located adjacent to a transit system. (Photo Credit: Mark Davidson)

The North Santa Fe Apartments, designed by Rodriguez Associates Architects and Planners, sits across from the transit Vista Transit Center in Vista, California. Governor Brown’s new plan requires a 10 percent quota for affordable housing projects located adjacent to a transit system. (Photo Credit: Mark Davidson)

Director for the Sierra Club of California, Kathryn Phillips, thinks Gov. Brown has overstepped his bounds once again. She talks about the proposal’s potential impact on coastal development, how it would cut into developer fees that fund road and water main improvement and says the vagueness of language used to define affordable housing could lead to an increase in gentrification. Calling the governor’s bill a “radical proposal,” she suggests that what’s really at stake is transparency in the democratic process, something CEQA has fought to maintain for over four decades.

“All of it has to do with making sure the common knows what’s happening and making sure that the negative effects can be mitigated so that nobody suffers from creating new housing […] why would [affordable housing] be challenged to the level that [supporters of the bill] are talking about if you’re open and honest with people about what’s going on,” she says.

Relief Comes With Strings Attached

Conservation has been a defining issue of Gov. Brown’s tenure, whether through his recent declaration that Californians reduce their water usage or his unwavering support of the high-speed rail. Yet his reputation with the environmental community at large has been touch and go, and his most recent actions have put him on the offense. In a conference last October to address lawsuits against CEQA, he said that modifications to the law were prudent but not feasible, and that reforming it would be a losing battle.

Jerry Brown at a 2010 rally (Source: Creative Commons)

Jerry Brown at a 2010 rally (Source: Creative Commons)

Phillips questions whether fatigue has made the public figure grow weary of democracy altogether. “When the opportunity presents itself [Gov. Brown] is looking for ways to extract the ability to weaken the public process and environmental review and this [proposal] is another example of that.”

This is not the first time Gov. Brown has been frustrated by the opposition. During his two terms as mayor for the city of Oakland, he faced off frequently with neighborhood and activist groups. His track record with affordable housing has been equally fraught. He notoriously cut a major source of funding for such projects as part of his plan to balance the state’s budget as governor of California in 2011, claiming subsidies alone would not solve the problem.

Indeed, the governor’s plan of relief comes as a packaged deal. The legislature will soon have to decide whether that deal, with all of its strings attached, is worth taking.

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