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Tue, Jun

Are Developers Riding the Homeless to the Bank?

LOS ANGELES

DEEGAN ON LA-Developers may be gifted with yet another way of not being required to have an expensive EIR (environmental impact review) as part of their projects if state bill AB 1907 is passed.

This time, it’s the homeless who are facilitating the change in what is being described as a merciful action. 

Councilmember David Ryu (CD4) introduced an LA City Council Resolution to support a CEQA exemption in support of AB 1907. This state bill would, in his words, “exempt affordable and bridge housing for individuals experiencing homelessness from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review, in order to speed up the construction of low-income housing amidst a Statewide crisis in homelessness.” 

Assembly Bill 1907, authored by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, a Democrat representing the 53rd Assembly District, which encompasses parts of Downtown Los Angeles and East Los Angeles, has not yet been referred to a Committee for a hearing. 

This pending state legislation -- for which Ryu has submitted his Resolution and urged support from his colleagues -- would give developers a huge financial break. It would dampen community feedback by waiving a developer’s requirement to conduct an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on projects that would help house the homeless. LA City Council adopted Ryu’s resolution at their February 19 meeting. 

The resolution supports state legislation that would “exempt from the CEQA all housing development with 50 percent or more units set aside for homeless housing, as well as affordable housing developments with 100 percent affordable or supportive housing units in the City.” 

Safeguards to prevent developers from converting their exempted properties into condos or market rate apartments, when and if the homeless crisis has been solved, have been included in the proposed bill, according to Ryu’s spokesperson who pointed out to CityWatch that according to the draft legislation, the free pass would end on January 1, 2029. 

What is being sidelined is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), on the books since 1970, which includes an Environmental Impact Review (EIR) of building projects. The EIR, along with community input, shows how a project will affect measurements such as traffic congestion, how a building may cause blocking of sunshine, or how it will impact air quality, as well as other legitimate environmental concerns. 

The loss of the EIR element is what's at stake with Ryu’s resolution: It could create a feeding frenzy for developers. There is the appearance that such “emergency” measures to house the homeless are allowing the politicos to jettison their environmental stewardship of the city. 

So far, there’s no answer to the question: How do we balance protecting the environment against helping the homeless? It’s as if the operating theory is that everyone who is homeless deserves a home, while other parts of society need to make environmental sacrifices to meet that need. Neither as deserving as the homeless are, nor as willing to make sacrifices like environmentalists are, developers would be, in the words of the Legislative Counsel, “exempt from environmental review under CEQA certain activities. . .in furtherance of providing emergency shelters, supportive housing, or affordable housing. . .” 

This is the second time in the first few months of 2020 that developers have been privileged with a legislated CEQA exemption. A few weeks ago, it was revealed that the Sustainable Communities Project CEQA Exemption (SCPE) is now available for use by developers, enabling them to work around CEQA. The SCPE program allows developers that align their housing projects with local transportation offerings -- such as bus, rail and subway exemptions -- to air, noise and traffic impacts that would normally be subject to CEQA, saving developers the cost of an environmental review and neutering community opposition (by using an EIR) to their projects. 

Two of the most benefit-driven sectors of society in Los Angeles today are at opposite ends of the arc: On one end are the homeless who will benefit from the implicit civic mandate to provide housing to the unhoused. At the other end, are the developers who are getting a huge benefit from these two CEQA exemptions designed for the developer class.

 

(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appears in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

 

 

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