California Lawmakers Endorse Wide Variety of Affordable Housing Options

You may not have seen the headlines (there weren’t any). You may have missed the raucous debate (there wasn’t much of one). But with the end of the legislative session last week, California is now on the verge of laying down a welcome mat for most major affordable housing projects across the state.

That’s not because of a single bill, but a patchwork of current and former legislation that, taken together, “basically covers any flavor of affordable housing you could possibly want to build,” said Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing, an affordable housing development nonprofit.

Homes designated for low-income occupants, like all housing projects, face a gauntlet of potential challenges and hold-ups that add to the already exorbitant cost of affordable housing in California. Those hurdles include lawsuits filed under the wide-ranging California Environmental Quality Act, extensive public hearings and other forms of opposition from local government.

Now, affordable housing projects — in most places and most of the time — may soon be exempt from all that, fitted out in a suit of procedural armor made up of some half a dozen bills and laws.

A bill now sitting on the governor’s desk would cover up one of the last chinks in that armor. Assembly Bill 1449, authored by two Democratic Assemblymembers, David Alvarez of San Diego and Buffy Wicks of Oakland, would exempt certain affordable apartment developments from review under CEQA. To qualify, projects would have to be located in dense urban areas, set aside each unit for someone earning less than 80% the area median income and abide by stricter labor standards, among other requirements.

Though modest and technical-sounding, that’s unusually broad for new construction in California.

“I do think it’s gonna be very consequential but it’s kind of flown under the radar,” Alvarez said. His explanation why: “The politics of where Californians are and certainly where the Legislature is — we want to see results. We want to see housing being produced.”

Taken together with a handful of other bills and current laws, said Mark Stivers, a lobbyist with the California Housing Partnership, which co-sponsored AB 1449, the new legislation “effectively make it possible for affordable housing providers to develop nearly all viable sites in California by-right and exempt from CEQA review.”

Speeding up approval for these projects comes with a trade-off. Environmental justice organizations, labor unions and various opponents of new development see CEQA as a vital tool to weigh in and on what gets built, where and and under what terms.

“Our communities rely heavily on CEQA to be able to get more information about proposed developments that might be contributing to further pollution,” said Grecia Orozco, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.

Local activists also often flood the public meetings of city councils and planning boards to pressure elected officials to block unpopular projects or extract concessions from developers.

Whether AB 1449 and a handful of similar bills become law is now up to Gov. Gavin Newsom. Supporters have reason to be optimistic. The Newsom administration is pushing local governments to approve an unprecedented 2.5 million additional homes by 2030, he called the CEQA process “broken” and in the spring he rolled out a package of bills aimed at speeding up environmental challenges to projects — though housing was not included.

He has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto the bills now sitting on his desk.

A patchwork of carve-outs

The Alvarez-Wicks bill isn’t the first legislative effort to grease the skids for new affordable housing.

Two others, both authored by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener, would force local governments to automatically approve apartment buildings in housing-strapped parts of the state and most affordable housing projects on the properties of houses of worship and nonprofit colleges, so long as they comply with a list zoning, affordability and labor requirements.

A third piece of legislation by San Jose Democratic Sen. Dave Cortese exempts the decision by local governments to fund affordable housing projects from environmental challenges, too. Newsom already signed it.

Still awaiting the governor’s pen are a handful of bills that make it more difficult to stall housing projects though environmental lawsuits in general. That includes a bill by Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, that would make it easier for courts to toss out environmental challenges they deem “frivolous” or “solely intended to cause unnecessary delay.” Another by Assemblymember Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, would give local officials a deadline by which to approve or deny a project’s environmental review.

The Ting proposal was fiercely opposed by many environmental activists and the State Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group that represents many unionized construction workers. The bill would also make it more difficult for courts to award legal fees to groups that sue to block projects through CEQA.

J.P. Rose, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which regularly brings such suits, called that provision “the largest weakening of CEQA in recent history.”

The fact that this long list of bills passed the Legislature — some by healthy margins — amounts to a notable political shift, said Christopher Elmendorf, a law professor at UC Davis who advised Ting on the bill.

“I think it illustrates that a sea change is underfoot in how people are starting to think about these environmental review laws,” he said, though he noted that the shift in California is still modest compared to those underway in other states.

Earlier this year, the Washington legislature nearly unanimously passed a law to exempt virtually all new urban housing from that state’s environmental protection law.

The grand bargain continued

Many of the California bills build on a law passed last year that streamlines affordable housing construction along commercial corridors.

In cobbling together the law, its author, Wicks, struck a compromise: In exempting certain housing projects from environmental challenge and other local hurdles, developers would pay workers a higher minimum wage, provide them with health care benefits and abide by other stricter labor standards. That trade was the key to winning the support of the state carpenters’ union and breaking up a legislative logjam that had stymied housing production bills for years.

It also provided a template for Wiener’s two streamlining bills this year, along with the Alvarez-Wicks CEQA exemption proposal.

“That really laid the foundation for those of us who did work in the housing space this year,” said Alvarez.

Not every pro-housing advocate or CEQA critic is so content with the bargain.

“A lot of these bills help a little,” said Jennifer Hernandez, a land use attorney at the law firm Holland & Knight, who has catalogued CEQA challenges to housing projects for years. But she notes that swapping out the threat of environmental litigation with higher payroll expenses just replaces one cost with another.

In practice, she said, these exemptions are only likely to clear the way for substantial new housing construction in higher cost areas where developers can make up the difference by charging higher rents to non-subsidized residents. “You really need premium rentals to pay for those higher labor standards,” she said.

But for many affordable housing developers, it’s still a trade worth making.

“You’ve got really strong laws, clear exemptions, and an attorney general who’s willing to step up and say you got to build it,” said Mandolini with Eden Housing, who has been working on housing in the state for more than two decades. “This is the best it has been in California…If this had all existed 20 years ago, we might have built a lot more housing a lot faster.”



  1. Going all in on building giant multi family apartment complexes on one-acre lots is going to be, in hindsight, a terrible idea. Sure, you need a percentage of giant, multi-family properties – but most families, especially with children, don’t want to live at those properties for the long term. They are more designed for young singles or couples. This (lack of reasonably priced single family homes) is why so many middle class families are leaving.

    On top of that – the “supportive” housing properties popping up – especially in downtown (Villas, Second Street Studios) are sadly what many people were afraid of. They are filled with single adult males, many with criminal records – and those properties get constant calls to police and are more like institutions than housing communities. They are the new wave of public housing – just concentrating really poor and disabled people in buildings in certain districts.

    This is a major fair housing issue – and these properties are a nightmare to manage. Many living in them need treatment, not a 400 Sq ft apartment that cost nearly $1 million to build.

    CA has it all wrong sadly on housing.


    While I am of the ‘build-more-units if you want lower rent’ school of thought, your comments are spot on. And yes, I have seen the fair-housing issues with the NGOs with steering. We also attempted to house some homeless in a six unit place we owned in SJ and it was a nightmare, one of the tenants scared two separate single women (1/3 of the units) out of the building within a week. None of the homeless lasted more than 3 months as their social worker knew they had committed numerous evict-able violations and wanted to keep their vouchers clean.

    I think one of the bigger problems is the conflation of all these issues into one size fits all solutions. Frankly, most at-risk tenants need a one-time infusion of cash, some need a couple hundred a month, some need help moving out of CA, some need Section 8 level help and some need to be committed. But the $1M, 400 sqft SRO has very obvious benefactors and photo-ops.

    I do not think the situation is fixable until CA bottoms out, something I thought was impossible until recently. CA needs to become Detroit, which will certainly lower rents and housing costs and slowly rebuild itself up from that. But by no means should anyone move to, raise a family in or start a business in CA.

  3. Just look at downtown San Jose as an example – and the fair housing violations that are diminishing quality of life. For example, district 3, downtown, has large concentrations of “supportive housing” – and those buildings are much more like institutions then housing communities. Second Street Studios has had significant health and safety issues – and right across the street is an encampment right by the bus stop. These buildings are magnets for squalor because many don’t get treatment and apartments aren’t medicine. Villas on the Park – they have cops there ALL of the time and it looks like it houses nortenos/ex cons (which many of these programs do serve) and addicts. The surrounding area has people living in cars – and often times the tenants hang out in the middle of the street and bring St James Park activity to the building.

    Whoever thought putting 100% of people with disabilities into one building, and all of them also extremely poor…well, this is the new and more illegal way to concentrate poverty. Someone has too bring this up. The supportive housing sites are just like the people complaining said…they bring MORE criminal activity and shady people to your neighborhood.

    You’re also right – conflating a mental health and drug issue with actual homelessness (families and elderly) has been a massive failure, along with zero enforcement of laws. Nothing will change until there is a widespread acknowledgement that the current “leaders” failed and their “plan” does nothing but enable and make problems worse. I hope the media begins to cover the reality of Harm Reductio and Housing First – and how those programs have made the issues worse, more expensive and farther from realistic solutions.

    Oh, and I stopped commenting on Spotlight because they muzzle reasonable perspectives that counter the misinformation they place in their articles, trying to actually prop up failed leaders and policies, and their obsession with identity politics. They aren’t news, they are propaganda for the labor hacks, and super progressive failed policies.

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