How big will Newsom go on California housing change?

Construction workers build multifamily housing in San Diego on Jan. 13, 2023. Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters

From CalMatters’ housing reporter Ben Christopher:

Ever since a California court ruled earlier this year that UC Berkeley violated the state’s premier environmental protection law by failing to account for “student-generated noise” at a proposed housing development, we knew this was coming.

In response to that ruling, Gov. Gavin Newsom called the state’s environmental review process “clearly broken.” He labeled those who wielded it to block the dorm project “selfish” and “NIMBYs.”

“The law needs to change,” he said in a statement.

Today, the governor is apparently ready to make good on that pledge.

This morning the governor proposed an overhaul to the way that infrastructure projects get approved in California, a step that some advocates say is necessary if the state is to meet its ambitious clean energy, transportation and housing goals.

At heart of the debate: The California Environmental Quality Act (which acronym-loving policy geeks pronounce “see-kwah”), a five-decade-old law that requires governments to study and minimize the environmental impact of any decision they make — and that gives anyone opposed to the decision ample opportunity to sue.

The governor previewed the big announcement at a California Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting in Sacramento on Thursday.

  • Newsom: “We will be putting out the most ambitious streamlining and permitting and judicial reforms in our state in a half century…If we get nothing else done in the next three years, this may be one of the most consequential things that we can actually deliver.”

That was a big applause line at the gathering of business leaders and it’s no wonder why. The law has long been the target of industry groups, who argue that it gives environmental activists, special interests and ticked-off locals the undue ability to delay and kill projects they don’t like. 

Defenders of the law say it’s a vital tool that gives the environment and politically powerless communities a seat at the table. But in recent years even some liberals have come around to the conclusion that the law is as much an impediment to progress as it is pollution.

The big question: Just how far will Newsom go? Does he plan to propose a full statutory makeover or will he propose to add yet another set of exemptions for specific, politically-favored projects (major sports stadiums are the most eyebrow-raising example, but there are also specific carve outs for bike lanes, homeless shelters and rooftop solar)?

(The Los Angeles Times reported today that Newsom will unveil a package of 11 bills, including ones to limit how long CEQA lawsuits can last on certain water, clean energy and other infrastructure projects. They are to be rolled into the state budget, which legislators must pass by June 15.)

Flash back to 2012: then-Gov. Jerry Brown called the effort to rewrite the law “the Lord’s work” — an endorsement of the end goal, but also an acknowledgment of the daunting politics

But those politics may have changed, largely thanks to the state’s housing affordability crisis driven by a profound shortage of homes

As for Berkeley, where the student housing kerfuffle provided so much of the political momentum behind today’s announcement: The California Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to take up the case.

Read the full press release from the Office of the Governor HERE.

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