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HomeSunset Host CoDebate rages over California coastal development amid housing crisis

Debate rages over California coastal development amid housing crisis


A California bill that could allow more homes to be quickly built in coastal areas has sparked a fierce legislative battle, as the state contends with a chronic housing shortage.

The bill, which would expedite the development of multifamily housing, including in previously exempt coastal zones, overcame a significant hurdle this week, as the state legislature heads into a month of summer recess.

Those in favor of SB 423, sponsored by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D), view the legislation as a critical tool that could alleviate the state’s housing crisis while protecting the integrity of California’s coast.

But many opponents fear the bill could drive a wedge between housing and environmental interests, in a state that for decades has been a national benchmark for climate policy.

“That is really backwards,” Wiener told The Hill, describing this perspective as a “narrow view of what climate action is.”

“When you oppose putting dense, affordable housing in our existing urbanized communities, then all you’re doing is fueling sprawl, and more driving, and more carbon emissions,” he said.

Despite the deep divides regarding SB 423’s fate, the legislation advanced on Monday at a fiery hearing in the State Assembly Natural Resources Committee, garnering bipartisan support.

Three of the seven members who supported it were Republicans, while all four no-votes were Democrats, including the committee’s chair.

“I calculated, I think, four and a half years since I’ve walked into a committee without having full agreement with the chair,” Wiener said at the hearing, noting that he has introduced 140 bills.

SB 423 seeks to extend Wiener’s existing SB 35, a 2017 law that launched a streamlined, opt-in approval process for multifamily housing in cities that have not yet met their housing targets.

Projects built through SB 35, which is set to sunset in 2025, must comply with existing residential and mixed-use zoning and set aside at least 10 percent of units for lower-income families.

From 2018 through 2021 alone, developers proposed nearly 18,000 units of affordable housing under the law, according to a recent analysis from University of California, Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation. Three-quarters of these units were designated for lower-income households — or those below 80 percent of their area’s median income, per the analysis.

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D), co-author of SB 423, described its predecessor as “one of the most impactful laws on the books in the state of California to actually build affordable housing.”

SB 423 bill would not only extend SB 35’s provisions through 2036, but it would also incorporate stronger labor standards signed into law last year. Mixed income projects that surpass 85 feet would only be eligible for streamlining if they included a skilled and trained workforce.

Among the most divisive elements measure in SB 423, however, is its deletion of a provision in SB 35 that had prohibited the streamlining of multifamily housing projects in coastal zones.

“We’re not looking to build new homes on coastal bluffs or in sensitive areas,” Wiener told The Hill, noting that the bill includes many exclusions. “But the coastal zone includes places like Santa Monica, and Santa Cruz and parts of Los Angeles.”

Trade organizations representing carpenters, laborers and operating engineers have all voiced their support for the legislation, Wicks noted at the hearing.

“This is a labor-friendly, labor-positive bill,” said Jay Bradshaw, executive officer of the Nor Cal Carpenters Union, on behalf of a broad coalition of laborers. “We need 2.5 million housing units as fast as possible.”

Workers in California’s coastal communities travel about 10 percent more each day than commuters heading elsewhere, according to a 2015 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office. These communities also take about two-and-a-half months longer than inland towns to issue building permits: seven versus four-and-a-half months, per the report.

While recognizing the need for more affordable housing, SB 423’s opponents expressed alarm about streamlining the development of multifamily housing along California’s coast.

Sean Drake, a senior legislative analyst for the California Coastal Commission, told committee members on Monday that while he and his colleagues disapprove of SB 423 in its current form, they would be willing to remove their opposition with the addition of certain amendments.

Important provisions include limiting such development to areas already zoned for residential or multi-family use, to protect businesses that are “enjoyable for everyone to visit,” Drake said.

Addressing this demand, Wiener told The Hill that “SB 423 only applies to areas that are already zoned residentially — period, end of story.”

“The Coastal Commission has been spreading misinformation in that regard that is just absolutely inaccurate,” he said.

The Commission called for an amendment that would ban streamlining in “areas vulnerable to five feet of sea level rise as determined by best available science,” according to a document shared with The Hill. Such steps would aim to address concerns that homes could become unlivable in the coming decades.

In response to this request, revisions from Wiener suggested a ban in “areas vulnerable to three feet of sea level rise as determined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the Ocean Protection Council.”

At the Monday hearing, Drake stressed that construction practices must look toward the year 2100, by which time low and moderate projections for sea level rise are five feet or more.

“Five feet is the lowest benchmark that we think is acceptable for ensuring that housing will actually be protected for its useful life, and that we’re not locating affordable housing in sacrifice zones,” he said.

Laura Walsh, California Policy Manager for the Surfrider Foundation, echoed Drake’s sentiments, noting that “five feet is a very conservative estimate.”

Walsh also expressed fears that the bill could become “a Trojan horse” that might “deregulate qualified housing development along a very thin strip of land that contains some of the nation’s most lucrative real estate.”

At the hearing, Wiener responded to concerns about rising sea levels, saying that although he is “open to five feet,” he had adopted federal standards because “best available science” is not an objective measure.

Revisiting this point on Friday, Wiener said the parties are “very close to an agreement” on sea level rise and on identifying an objective measurement standard.

The state senator also stressed that even if the bill stayed as is, about 85 percent of California’s coastal zone would still be exempt from the streamlined development process.

While Natural Resources Committee members remain at odds over the current version of the bill, these divisions did not necessarily align with partisan interests.

Among the most vocal opponents was Committee Chair Luz M. Rivas (D), who said that her San Fernando Valley constituents — including families of four with collective annual incomes of $30,000 — would not “be able to afford the housing that’s built through this bill.”

Rivas commended Wiener for getting labor groups on board with the bill, but she took issue with potential coastal, wildfire and environmental justice effects.

She emphasized the need to include stronger language on wildfire risk, referring to a revision to the bill that she proposed in a legislative analysis of SB 423. The concern in this case is  [again, think we just want to be a little more explicit about what the concern is — that new affordable housing and its denizens could be vulnerable to fires.

Rivas’s analysis proposed keeping a clause that prohibits development “within a very high fire hazard severity zone,” as identified by the Forestry and Fire Protection Department (Cal Fire) director or in “high or very high fire hazard severity” areas on maps adopted by Cal Fire.

But her revision called for the deletion of a sentence that would lift the ban in “sites excluded from the specified hazard zones by a local agency… or sites that have adopted fire hazard mitigation measures pursuant to existing building standards.”

“My concern is that we will be developing in a very dangerous area, and I want to be clear on what parameters we will be putting there,” Rivas said at the hearing.

Wiener responded that he could not accept such “a categorical exemption or exclusion from the bill for these zones,” which he said would be “a massive body blow to this bill.”

Elaborating on his stance on Friday, the state senator said that such an exclusion “would set a terrible precedent.”

Wiener acknowledged that there are certain places where development should not occur, such as “a hilly area with a one-lane road going up and down,” which he described as “a tinderbox.”

But he also called attention to “places that are in very high severity zones, where you can take steps and mitigations to make it completely appropriate to build.”

While divisions among Democrats stood out in the state Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, Wiener noted that the bill received “strong majority Democratic support” in the state Senate and earned 29 votes out of 40 on the chamber’s floor.

“Housing is not a partisan issue in legislature,” Wiener said. “There are Democrats and Republicans on both sides.”

Among those committee members who expressed support for SB 423 was Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur (D), who pointed out that “California has the highest functional poverty rate of any state.” 

“We need to do everything we can to incentivize and remove the barriers to building more housing,” Chavez Zbur said.

Assemblymember Josh Hoover (R), meanwhile, called for “an all-hands-on-deck approach,” adding that “that we have to make California a place where our kids can afford to live.”

Once the California legislature returns from recess, which began at endof-session on Friday, SB 423 will head to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. If the bill passes there, it could be eligible for a floor vote on August 21, according to Erik Mebust, a spokesperson for Wiener.

The bill would then have until Sept. 14 to return to the Senate for a concurrence vote, after which Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) would have 12 days to sign it into law — which Mebust said the governor “has signaled he is excited to do.”

Going forward, Wiener expressed feelings of positivity about the bill’s path and the prospects of resolving differences regarding wildfire risk and those with the Coastal Commission.

“I feel very good about that,” he said. “They’ve come to the table, we’ve come to the table, and I think we’re very, very close.”

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