Oct 17, 2023 - Real Estate

San Diego housing reform migrates to the state

An apartment complex under construction in North Park on Sept. 2, 2020. Photo: Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When he was on the San Diego City Council, David Alvarez realized something about housing reform: It was mostly the state, not cities, that needed to make major changes.

State of play: Now, Alvarez is in the Assembly, and he can take on what he calls "the really big laws that get in the way of building more housing."

Driving the news: Alvarez authored two housing bills this year signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week.

  • AB 1449 made all housing projects with 100% of their units reserved for low-income housing exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act, the state's landmark environmental law.
  • AB 1287 gives developers an incentive to reserve homes in their projects for middle-income residents. Developers who use an existing program that lets them build more homes in a project than zoning allows if they reserve homes for low-income residents, can then get an additional boost in the total units they can build by reserving some for middle-income residents as well.

Why it matters: San Diego, like other California cities, continues to rank among the least affordable metro areas in the country.

What he's saying: Alvarez's second term on the City Council was dominated by housing policy, when he and Republican Councilmember Scott Sherman received national attention for pushing a list of 17 reforms through City Hall.

  • "We did most of them, and they moved the needle a little bit," Alvarez said. "We also realized there are things we just can't change, that the state has to change."
  • The biggest of those, he said, is CEQA.

The intrigue: Alvarez thought his bill to weaken CEQA could become a major controversy.

  • "I saw how CEQA was weaponized at the City Council —if people had money to hire legal representation, just because they didn't want their neighborhood to change, they used CEQA," he said. "But that was also the impetus. I know what a delicate issue it is, but I also recognized how important it was."
  • " I honestly didn't think we could ever reach a day where we could get a full CEQA exemption on housing," Alvarez said. "Six years ago, the idea was nothing ever happens on CEQA."
  • The only formal opponent listed against the bill wasn't an environmental group, but the state construction labor union.
  • Any bill to streamline housing production, the union argued, should include wage and training requirements for construction workers.

The bottom line: The city's own housing blueprint says it needs to build 13,000 homes a year to keep pace with demand. It issued permits for 4,442 last year. Whether it's state or local policies in the way, we're not even close.

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