Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Gov. Brown's proposal on housing approvals could be a win-win

By Ethan Elkind

Governor Brown's proposal in his new budget to make certain housing developments eligible to be approved by the state “by right” has riled up not just local governments — who stand to lose discretionary approval over these projects — but some labor and environmental groups as well.

It's pretty obvious why these groups are upset: the by-right state approval means they lose their leverage over projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which can trigger lengthy local environmental review for discretionary approvals. And the governor's proposal, as currently written, lacks safeguards to ensure that only environmentally beneficial projects are eligible for state approval.

Yet local resistance to new housing is a problem well beyond CEQA, and its cumulative effect — through restrictive local zoning, discretionary rejection of new housing, and citizen petitions and lobbying — has created a massive housing shortage in the state's big cities.  The inevitable result is high housing costs squeezing middle-income earners, with displacement and gentrification pushing out low-income earners. It's becoming a national drag on our economy, while pushing new development out to the exurbs and over open space and farmland.

So in principle, state approval of certain housing projects is justified. But it needs to be the right kind of housing development, consistent with existing local plans. A relatively straightforward condition on these projects to be eligible is that they are located within a half-mile of a major transit stop and meet certain vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emission profiles. That would ensure environmental performance and that the projects do not contribute to sprawl.

The basic formula would be: 1/2 mile + VMT + GHG = by-right approval.

Of course, you'd probably have to layer in an affordable housing requirement as well to achieve political consensus. But increasing supply today will go a long way to stabilizing prices and therefore minimizing displacement, as well as creating the housing stock that will one day be affordable to low-income earners. And in the meantime, we can ensure that these new projects contain affordable units.

And for the labor groups, these multi-unit housing developments typically require higher-paying, high-skilled jobs that pay better than sprawl construction.

It would be a win-win, if our political leaders and advocates can arrive at compromise.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.