To spur workforce housing construction, speed reviews

April 19, 2017

California is home to one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation, and it is no secret that many Californians are unable to afford to rent or own a home. One-third of renters in California spend more than half their income on housing; California has 22 percent of the country’s homeless population while only 12 percent of its total population; and homeownership rates are at their lowest since the 1940s.

Access to housing is a basic human need, and ensuring Californians have access to an affordable place to live is critical to every Californian’s quality of life. That’s why I have authored Senate Bill 540, which streamlines California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to spur housing construction in areas identified by cities and counties as Workforce Housing Zones.

Currently, housing construction projects are subject to individual environmental reviews even if they would be undertaken in the same underlying zone. This can result in costly project delays and serve as a disincentive to housing construction.

SB 540, however, allows for a single environmental review to be completed for all projects within a zone. By some estimates, SB540 would shave one to two years off the development timeline without compromising public health, local control or the rights of citizens to participate in local land use decisions. It allows for a full review, preserving critical opportunities for public comment and hearings, as well as improved transparency through up-front plan development and environmental reviews.

Because local governments would conduct extensive environmental reviews at the front-end, not only will developers have a clear picture of the conditions for development (including traffic mitigation measures, parking requirements, design review standards, and environmental mitigation), but also no project-specific additional environmental reviews would be necessary. Housing developments within these planned areas could proceed in an expedited manner. SB 540 strikes an important balance to preserve the protections afforded under CEQA while removing some of the barriers that currently limit housing construction.

SB540 requires plans to focus on workforce and affordable housing in areas close to jobs and transit. In order to be eligible, 30 percent of units within the zone must be sold or rented to moderate-income households; 15 percent must be sold or rented to lower income households; and 5 percent must be sold or rented to very low-income households. Additionally, market rate projects must include 10 percent affordable units.

So far, SB540 has received bipartisan, unanimous support in two Senate committees and is up for a key vote in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee this week. If we do not work toward commonsense policies that remove the barriers to housing construction, the affordability crisis will continue to grow and families will continue to struggle. SB540 is a blueprint for more housing that will incentivize housing construction in the areas most in need.

State Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, represents the 31st District.