Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law on Thursday that will extend expedited California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) building project reviews to small scale projects.
Senate Bill 7, authored by Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) would specifically extends the provisions made in the 2011-passed AB 900 law, which expedited CEQA review for housing, energy, and manufacturing projects that cost more than $100 million. Though set to expire this year, SB 7 will now expand CEQA expedited approvals through 2025. The bill, also known as the Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act of 2021, would also lower minimum for a qualified project from $100 million to $15 million as long as 15% of the project is set aside for affordable housing and is an infill project on vacant or unutilized land.
SB 7 would also allow for quicker turn-around times for building smaller-scale housing projects in the state by expediting legal challenges of the projects and reducing the paperwork required for qualified projects.
Senator Atkins wrote the bill to allow for more environmentally-friendly buildings to be built, as well as to add more construction jobs, add additional affordable housing and to help alleviate the housing crisis.
“This bill is a win for the environment, the economy, and California as a whole,” said Senator Atkins on Thursday. “It speeds up the costly and time-consuming review process without compromising California’s strict environmental standards. With our economy in recovery mode from the impacts of COVID, high-wage jobs are needed, and this bill meets that demand. Now, shovel-ready, economic development projects will get started sooner, putting people to work and providing transformative change to communities across the state that are in need of jobs and housing. I’m appreciative to Governor Newsom and my Senate and Assembly colleagues for seeing the value of this legislation, and to Speaker Rendon for expediting this legislation – this bill is going to make a real difference for our state and the people who call it home.”
At the bill signing on Thursday in San Jose, which doubled as an event to help push forward the final hurdle in San Jose City Council next week to allow the construction of Google’s proposed South Bay Campus, Governor Newsom and other supporters praised the bill for similar reasons.
“California’s recovery from the pandemic must tackle the housing shortage that threatens our economic growth and long-term prosperity,” stated Governor Newsom after signing SB 7 into law. “Cutting red tape to save time and remove barriers to production helps us meet the urgent need for more housing while creating good jobs and preserving important environmental review.”
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo noted that the bill’s passage will help California recover quicker from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“SB 7 will enable San Jose’s transformative Downtown West project to move forward –bringing thousands of units of affordable housing and tens of thousands of jobs to our city – during a time our community needs it the most,” said Mayor Liccardo. “I am grateful for Governor Newsom’s leadership as we work towards California’s recovery, and to the rest of the legislature for their support of this important legislation.”
Critics vocalize drawbacks of SB 7
Despite being passed unanimously in the Senate and nearly unanimously in the Assembly earlier this year, the signing was denounced by many on Thursday over the bill allowing state law to supersede local needs and wants.
“This is very much a YIMBY bill,” remarked Penny Hewitt, a developer liaison to city councils and planning departments, to the Globe. “And there is nothing wrong with wanting new construction, especially when done responsibly in areas that can handle these types of developments. In fact, allowing for smaller and less dense buildings will probably make many cities a lot more open to new construction because of traffic and other concerns being reduced due to fewer people going to the proposed building in question.”
“But AB 900, and now SB 7, makes it hard for cities to say no. If it meets the state’s criteria, and all other regulations are being followed, it makes it really hard for cities to say no. Many places don’t want taller buildings or having a lot of affordable units to open up at once because some people see that as unsightly or reducing housing values, but the counter now is that the buildings can be significantly reduced with SB 7, and the buildings allowing young professionals to have a starter apartment in the building in the affordable units.”
“But the big thing is that the bill makes it even harder for cities to put in a challenge. With small buildings now being covered, a lot of arguments go out the window because they can just scale it back or take off a few floors and still come in above the $15 million minimum.”
“What SB 7 will really do is get cities, especially citizen groups in those cities, well versed on reducing proposed developments down to the smallest they can possibly be. That means lowering the buildings, adding additional green space, reducing parking, allowing for the protection of large trees on the site, more eyesore reductions, and a lot of other things.”
“After 2011, we saw a huge jump in developments being bitterly fought over in city halls and conference rooms across the state due to AB 900 and CEQA. It’s only going to get worse now. Lawmakers think they’re getting more from this because of the new requirements, but in reality all it does is give people opposing these developments a lot more to leverage with. You know how in WWI they fought in the trenches for several feet of land in a day? That’s going to be the same mentality of city meetings over a lot of these projects in the next several years.”
“And as anyone who has ever gone to a city zoning meeting will tell you, people get passionate very quickly. So any public meeting over these buildings are going to get bogged down, especially from public comment. That’s the future right now.”
Other bills that would expand affordable housing in California are currently being debates in legislative committees.