The California Legislature was off to a roaring start to the first quarter of the 2020 legislative session. Legislators had introduced a whopping 2,203 new bills in January and February. Policy Committees were beginning to schedule bills for hearings, Budget conversations were starting, and Governor Newsom spoke strongly about the need to truly invest in and solve the homelessness crisis in CA – that it was his number one priority. All that changed, however, with the outbreak of the coronavirus. With cases rising and health care infrastructure under stress, nearly all attention of state leaders is on addressing this immediate crisis. Mandates to shelter in place, purchasing of new hospitals, and staying eviction proceedings are just a few of the steps taken in the first week of the outbreak.
While the Legislature took a precautionary recess to avoid placing their staff and constituents at greater risk of contracting the virus, they plan to resume session at some point this year and continue legislating. Though the coronavirus response is the most immediate need facing the state, there were already several very important issues that have not gone away.
Most notable of those is the housing affordability and homelessness crisis. In January, Governor Newsom dedicated nearly his entire State of the State Address to how the state must make radical moves to end the homelessness crisis and make housing more affordable by increasing supply of affordable and market rate housing. His original proposed budget included another $1.4 billion towards the homeless crisis - $750 million for a new statewide program and $650 million for expanded health services. This proposal is in contract to prior years when the funding was distributed to local governments for action. With the state budget in turmoil due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it is yet to be determined what, if any, funding will be available from the state this year.
Also in January, the state Senate heard an amended and scaled back version of SB 50 by Senator Wiener. The bill to upzone many cities in the state to promote density and infill development was amended over the fall to add displacement and renter protections and provide local governments with the option to develop their own upzoning plan before SB 50 would take effect. Those changes, however, were not enough to secure the necessary votes in the Senate. With Senator Wiener’s third attempt at an upzoning bill unsuccessful (SB 827 in 2018, SB 50 in 2019, and SB 50 again in 2020), he has turned to a different approach. SB 902 would allow for small multiunit developments across most single family zoning in the state. The size of those developments would range from 2 to 4 units, depending on the size of the city. It would also provide authority, and an exemption from CEQA and any local ballot measures, for local governments to zone for up to 10 units per parcel.
Senator Wiener is not the only legislator attempting to promote housing production. Assemblymember Santiago has introduced AB 1907, which would give a broad CEQA exemption for the development of any affordable housing, transitional housing, homeless shelter, or supportive housing project. Assemblymember Eggman has introduced AB 2480 to provide ministerial approval of a project to convert a hotel or motel into affordable housing.
2020 was also gearing up to be perhaps the most significant CEQA year in the legislature in at least a decade. Senator Jackson has introduced SB 950, meant to make substantial changes to the CEQA litigation process. The bill attempts to address ‘late hits,’ adds some consideration of environmental justice into CEQA, adds new translation requirements, eliminates a CEQA ‘loophole’ for developer ballot initiatives that could be approved by a lead agency, and directs the Attorney General to begin tracking CEQA settlements to identify and pursue action against frequent litigants that are not acting in furtherance of CEQA, among many other things.
Assemblymembers Friedman and Chiu are also undertaking a CEQA-reform effort. Their bill, AB 3232, is focused on examining all of the existing streamlining and exemption measures available for infill housing projects and redrafting to make them more consistent and easier to use. Assemblymember Friedman is also seeking to very slightly expand the definition of a Transit Priority Project to allow more projects to qualify through another bill, AB 3335.
Lastly, Senate President pro Tem Atkins and Assemblymember Santiago are each seeking to reinstate the ‘AB 900’ program meant to expedite judicial review of ‘Environmental Leadership Development Projects’ that are certified by the Governor. The program’s authorizing statute sunset at the end of 2019, and some hope to revive it as the program has been used for several large commercial and housing projects.
These are just a small sample of the CEQA and housing proposals floating in the Legislature this year. The AEP Legislative Review Committee will be analyzing and commenting on a number of these proposal. With the COVID-19 outbreak and response occupying all the attention of state officials and the legislature currently on recess until at least April 13, it is unknown when and to what direction the legislature will renew policymaking. As of now, focus is on providing an appropriate health care response and looking to how to protect and rebuild the state’s economy.