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Is CEQA the problem?

Eric Biber, LEGAL PLANET
(First published October 1, 2017)

The stakes here are high. Misguided CEQA reform could undermine environmental protection throughout the state, without meaningful improvements to our housing crisis.

On Friday [September 29, 2017], the Governor signed a package of housing bills intended to help address the soaring costs of housing in many metro areas in California. Follow-up coverage of that bill package has (rightly) indicated that those bills are a drop in the bucket in terms of addressing California’s housing crisis. One theme that emerges in that coverage and also coverage of other CEQA legislation (as well as a recent op-ed by two economists) is an argument that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), is a significant contributor to the housing crisis. The question is, is that really correct? The answer is fairly important if the legislature is (appropriately) going to continue looking at this issue in the next legislative session.

The main argument goes along these lines – there is a lot of regulation of housing development in California. More regulation increases the cost of supplying housing, and therefore the cost of housing. Less regulation would facilitate more housing supply, and lower costs.

It may be that overall, regulation of land-use development in California is a significant contributor to the state’s housing crisis. But CEQA is only a part of the overall regulation of California’s land-use development, as I’ve noted in an earlier post. If CEQA is a significant obstacle to housing development, then I would argue that changing CEQA in ways that minimize the loss in environmental protection and maximize the benefits in increased housing production should be our goal. But in order to determine whether changing CEQA is a prudent strategy, we need to understand in a better way how local land-use processes are affecting housing production in California.

Read more at http://legal-planet.org/2017/10/01/is-ceqa-the-problem/

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Op-Ed: Break down regulatory barriers before passing a tax for housing

Brian Ling, CEO of the Sonoma County Alliance, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

We all love Sonoma County, but the protections we have implemented, such as growth ordinances, urban growth boundaries, community separators, the open space district and an incredibly public and intensive approval process, have led to our housing crisis of under supply, over demand and incredibly high prices (even before the fires). Our residents need to universally support the projects that are being proposed within current general plan guidelines, particularly those within transit-oriented and other priority development areas. We (NIMBYS too!)voted in these protections to support the growth of new urbanism concepts. We need to support these projects now.

Today’s housing crisis is a product of land-use decisions made over the past three decades combined with a significant increase in unnecessary and/or duplicative rules and regulations. There is no question that the October fires put an exclamation point on the housing crisis. However, it is imperative to reverse this trend of housing barriers before the community further taxes ourselves toward a solution.

The Board of Supervisors, the Santa Rosa City Council and their planning departments should be commended for implementing policies to expedite rebuilding in the fire zones and priority development areas. However, additional opportunities remain that must be applied to all development within the respective general plans, not just within the fire zones. The Sonoma County Alliance believes taking action is required to positively impact new housing opportunities.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/8453619-181/close-to-home-break-down?sba=AAS

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The sword and the shield: Is CEQA to blame for the North Bay’s housing crisis?

Tom Gogola, THE NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

The landmark California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 was intended as a shield against construction projects that imperiled the environment. But in a case of unintended consequences, critics charge that the powerful law has been wielded as a sword by labor groups, environmentalists and neighborhood groups to defeat proposed housing developments. The result, they argue, is that a well-intentioned law has driven up the cost and lowered the supply of affordable housing in the North Bay and California at large.

In a way, this is a tale of two competing points-of-view about CEQA. In one corner, CEQA critics decry the law as a leading impediment to building transit-oriented and infill housing in the state—and especially in urban regions such as Los Angeles and the greater North Bay. That’s the gist of a recent legal study by the San Francisco law firm Holland & Knight. The analysis was published in the Hastings Environmental Law Journal.

In the other corner are supporters of CEQA who say those claims are overstated, and perhaps wildly so, and that the real driver behind the region’s struggles to deal with its affordable housing crisis, or any housing for that matter, are the local agencies (zoning boards, planning commissions) that also must sign off on any proposed development.

That’s an argument advanced in another recent report published by UC Berkeley School of Law, called “Getting It Right,” which serves as a handy counterpoint to the Holland & Knight report.

This is more than an academic debate. The discussion comes at a key moment in the North Bay, which is still reeling from last year’s devastating wildfires that destroyed more than 5,000 homes in the region, making an acute housing crisis even worse.

Read more at https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/the-sword-and-the-shield/Content?oid=6374283

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Piece by piece, a factory-made answer for a housing squeeze

Conor Dougherty, THE NEW YORK TIMES

California is in the middle of an affordable-housing crisis that cities across the state are struggling to solve. Rick Holliday, a longtime Bay Area real estate developer, thinks one answer lies in an old shipyard in Vallejo, about 40 minutes northeast of San Francisco.

Here, in a football-field-sized warehouse where workers used to make submarines, Mr. Holliday recently opened Factory OS, a factory that manufactures homes. In one end go wood, pipes, tile, sinks and toilets; out another come individual apartments that can be trucked to a construction site and bolted together in months.

“If we don’t build housing differently, then no one can have any housing,” Mr. Holliday said during a recent tour, as he passed assembly-line workstations and stacks of raw materials like windows, pipes and rolls of pink insulation.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/07/business/economy/modular-housing.html

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Rough paths forward for projects promising 1,200 housing units on Sonoma County land

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Housing units constructed in Santa Rosa in the last 5 years: 1,258

Housing units possible on 3 county-owned sites in Santa Rosa: nearly 1,200

Chanate Road, former county hospital complex
Size: 82 acres
Total units proposed: 867 (162 affordable)
Sales price: $6 million — $11.5 million

2150 W. College Ave., former Water Agency headquarters
Size: 7.5 acres
Total units proposed: 144 (29 affordable)*

*New development proposals being solicited

Roseland Village shopping center, Dollar Tree site
Size: 7 acres
Total units proposed: 175 (75 affordable)

Sonoma County wants to transform three large taxpayer-owned properties in Santa Rosa into new housing, with plans calling for as many as 1,200 units, a surge of supply in even greater demand after the destruction wrought by last year’s wildfires.

But with each of the county properties, which are either vacant or in need of improvements, the goals of government and developers have proven elusive, slowing the creation of new housing at a critical time, after nearly 5,300 homes were lost in the county in October’s fires.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8213280-181/rough-paths-forward-for-projects

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A bold, divisive plan to wean Californians from cars

Conor Dougherty and Brad Plumer, THE NEW YORK TIMES

It’s an audacious proposal to get Californians out of their cars: a bill in the State Legislature that would allow eight-story buildings near major transit stops, even if local communities object.

The idea is to foster taller, more compact residential neighborhoods that wean people from long, gas-guzzling commutes, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

So it was surprising to see the Sierra Club among the bill’s opponents, since its policy proposals call for communities to be “revitalized or retrofitted” to achieve precisely those environmental goals. The California chapter described the bill as “heavy-handed,” saying it could cause a backlash against public transit and lead to the displacement of low-income residents from existing housing.

State Senator Scott Wiener, the bill’s sponsor, responded by accusing the group of “advocating for low-density sprawl.”

In a state where debates often involve shades of blue, it’s not uncommon for the like-minded to find themselves at odds. But the tensions over Mr. Wiener’s proposal point to a wider divide in the fight against climate change, specifically how far the law should go to reshape urban lifestyles.

Although many cities and states are embracing cleaner sources of electricity and encouraging people to buy electric vehicles, they are having a harder time getting Americans to drive less, something that may be just as important.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/16/business/energy-environment/climate-density.html

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After fires, a push to fix housing crisis

Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

As it emerged from the Great Recession and a moribund housing market, Sonoma County in 2011 needed seven years to build nearly 5,000 new homes.

The fires of October wiped a greater number of houses and apartments off the map here in a single day.

The unprecedented disaster deepened an existing housing crisis and fueled calls by local officials to dramatically accelerate the pace of new home construction — perhaps to a level never before seen in the county, even in the decadeslong building boom following World War II.

By two recent estimates, a yawning gap exists between the housing stock the county had before the fires — about 208,000 homes, apartments and other units — and what is needed to keep the economy growing and to comfortably house a wide range of workers and families.

It could be as high as 30,000 units — equivalent to what exists in Rohnert Park, Windsor and Sebastopol — according to county supervisors, who set that figure as an ambitious five-year building target that would include both the burn areas and surrounding communities.

“We are eroding the character of our county by not allowing people who work here to live here and be a part of the community,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore. The county, he said, came up with its estimate of 30,000 homes “not as a hopeful aspiration, but as an analysis of how much we’re short from a healthy housing market.”

But some leaders in the local building and real estate industry say there is no conceivable way for the county to build 6,000 houses and apartments a year, equivalent to completing 16 homes a day. The obstacles, builders say, include insufficient levels of labor, materials and projects ready to go.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8011910-181/fires-fuel-a-daunting-push

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Owner of Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa won’t rebuild after Tubbs fire

Julie Johnson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The fire-ravaged Journey’s End mobile home park will not reopen, but its owner is seeking to partner with a developer to build an apartment complex on the north Santa Rosa property, residents learned this weekend.

The family that owns the 13.5-acre site at Mendocino Avenue and Fountaingrove Parkway is working with nonprofit Burbank Housing to explore the feasibility of redeveloping the property into a mixture of affordable and market-rate apartments, Burbank chief executive officer Larry Florin said Sunday.

“We see this as an opportunity to preserve affordable housing but also to create something more permanent,” Florin said. “There’s a housing crisis, obviously, in Sonoma County.”

The decision not to rebuild throws former residents into another bout of uncertainty, with the hope of someday returning to their economical, tight-knit community now gone.

The mobile home park, a refuge for low-income and senior residents for nearly 60 years, has remained closed since the October wildfires. The Tubbs fire destroyed nearly three quarters of the 160 coaches on the property, killed two of its residents, incinerated its electrical and gas systems and irreparably contaminated the well supplying water to the community.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/7972490-181/owner-of-journeys-end-mobile?utm_source=home

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Altamira project gets go-ahead

“Striving to better,” William Shakespeare warns in “King Lear,” “oft we mar what’s well.”

An undercurrent of that sentiment pervaded the Sonoma City Council meeting Jan. 29, when city officials denied an appeal of a controversial affordable housing proposal – paving the way for construction of a 48-unit low-income development at the south end of Broadway, and dashing the hopes of project critics who argued it was too big, too dense and too out of character with surrounding neighborhoods.

As skeptics reminded the crowd multiple times at the Monday meeting – it would be the densest housing development in the history of Sonoma.

As if, during a housing crisis, that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Opponents of the project urged the council to do its “due diligence” and order an environmental impact report on the proposal in order to better vet potential parking, traffic and noise implications — studies which city staff had already conducted, but whose conclusions were unsatisfactory to project opponents.

The council, while acknowledging the understandable concerns of the neighbors over a project of this size in their neck of the woods, made little haste in refuting the appeal and, in the words of Councilmember Gary Edwards, getting “shovels in the ground” on this small fraction of a much-needed infusion of affordable housing stock in the Valley.

Read more at http://www.sonomanews.com/opinion/7945368-181/jason-walsh-altamira-project-gets?sba=AAS

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New Sonoma County government office will focus on wildfire recovery, resiliency

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday created a new government office to help the region bounce back from this year’s devastating wildfires and assist with charting a formal vision for the long-term recovery of the local housing supply, the economy and other key areas.

The new Office of Recovery and Resiliency will have its own budget and seven staff members, three of whom will come from the ranks of current county employees. Housed within the County Administrator’s Office, the body will for at least the next five years support the production and implementation of a plan to guide the community’s recovery and improve its ability to withstand future disasters.

Staffing costs this fiscal year will total an estimated $400,000. While the county hopes to get federal reimbursement, local officials must find their own way to pay for it — at least for now — so the Board of Supervisors is expected to consider funding options early next month.

“We have to be bold,” said Supervisor James Gore of the recovery office. “I look forward to this being the start of a really kind of good, deep discussion as we go into next year.”

The plan will focus on five broad areas where the post-fire recovery will play out: the housing market, the economy, the environment, safety net services and local infrastructure. Similar collaborations among county departments have been in place since the fires’ immediate aftermath.

“In the wake of the disaster, our communities must have the right tools to make smart, fast and agile transitions so that we can emerge from this tragedy economically, environmentally and socially stronger than ever,” County Administrator Sheryl Bratton wrote in a document this month outlining her reasoning behind the recovery office proposal. “It can be done but doing it requires a shared vision for the building of a more resilient future — a return to the status quo is not sufficient.”

Read more at: New Sonoma County government office will focus on wildfire recovery, resiliency