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Tim Coyle

Waivers for Homeless Housing

Rumor has it that in order to expedite the construction of housing for the homeless – something 2/3 of “street people” don’t want – California officials say they as an emergency measure are going to waive some restrictive permitting regulations and policies. Top billing among the waivers will go to CEQA.

CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act and has been around since the early 1970’s, when it was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan. Indeed, when it was being debated early in 1970, CEQA was to be the state’s premier environmental law.

Yet, today – instead of it protecting California’s vast environmental treasures – CEQA has become the first and last local land-use hurdle you have to clear if you want to build anything in this state. It can take years, and it costs. It’ll keep you in and out of court for years – all the while you are paying exorbitant legal fees.

To traverse the CEQA process a land user (developer) – before a project can be approved – must mitigate all of the impacts on the environment, loosely defined, including the areas that surround it.

For example, if the project has any impact on any biological resources, one must mitigate. Same with local or regional hydrology and the area water quality. Any increases in traffic and transportation needs, must be addressed. Air quality too. Impacts on agricultural and forestry resources, flora and fauna are also subject to CEQA mitigation. If the project increases noise pollution you’ve got to mitigate.

Of course, some mitigation is understandable. But, all of that? What about impacts on local and regional utilities required by CEQA? Impacts on land-use planning? On excessive energy consumption? On population and affordable housing supply? On “cultural resources” in the area? The project’s creation of greenhouse gases and emissions? CEQA also wants to know the wildfire risk.

Also, mitigation under CEQA is triggered if the project impacts local and regional aesthetics. So too public services. And, for upsetting hazardous materials, indigenous minerals and the tribal areas of American Indians. Huh?

But, CEQA deals with only part of the costly and time-consuming local permitting process that suddenly state officials are concerned about. True, waiving the law would be tough sledding. But, lawmakers have a history here – granting waivers in the recent past for multiple sports stadia.

What remains to be suspended – to win approval of the very-low-income housing desired – could be trickier. It is usually the domain of local governments to give the projects’ final approval and unlike sports stadia, homeless housing does not generate income – to either service debt or pay back the local jurisdiction – so what to suspend and how will require an abundant amount of give and take.

For example, impact fees assessed on development are sky-high – some jurisdictions get over $150,000 per home. Yet every penny charged is – and will further be – justified by the respective local governments. To make the housing affordable to folks with de minimis incomes will require fee waivers or deep discounts in them. Locals will be reluctant to give any, though, especially when they expect their service costs to climb.

Add to the fee waivers and subsequent higher service costs (produced by care for the housing) state officials will have to deal with changes in zoning, building standards and project design – typically the sole and well-guarded province of local government.

And, any new development has to get around the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups – which now, thanks to CEQA, populate most neighborhoods.

We’ll see what happens with all this. Meantime, we should be asking concerned state officials the following question: “Why not make the same effort for all of California’s housing needs?”