West Coast
A jogger runs past a large sand berm built to protect low-lying homes from winter storms along the Peninsula neighborhood of Long Beach on Dec. 23, 2019. (Scott Varley, The Orange County Register)

CA - Streamlining affordable housing is a good idea, even in the coastal zone

The affordable housing crisis has been a topic of longstanding debate in California, and for good reason. Millions of families are currently forced to spend more than 30% of their income on housing, and the average new home costs seven times annual income, up from three times annual income 50 years ago.

Laws such as newly enacted Senate Bill 423 lay out the only truly feasible roadmap for solving this problem, which is to remove or limit barriers to the production of housing. SB 423 takes a bold step that previous reforms have avoided: it extends its provisions to areas under the purview of the California Coastal Act. It’s a good start that addresses real problems, but if we truly want to lower housing costs in California, it’s only that — a start.

There are many factors that contribute to rising housing costs, but the Legislative Analyst’s Office identified two that are unquestionably driving the price increases here: regulatory hurdles and the economics of supply and demand.

The economics part is obvious — California needs to build 210,000 homes each year to meet population growth and we’re currently building roughly half that.

The regulatory hurdles are more complex, but at bottom they heavily influence the type of homes and units that get built, and their final cost. The longer a project takes to get approved, and the more permit applications (or reapplications), surveys, hearings, and lawsuits that take place, the more expensive a house or rental unit must be to recover the cost of development.

Environmental regulations such as the California Environmental Quality Act and California Coastal Act may have been well-intentioned, but far too often they can be abused by local NIMBYs (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) with more interest in keeping out new neighbors than preserving natural resources. A few NIMBYs with a bit of extra time on their hands can appeal countless permit approvals and demand additional environmental reviews — which can add months or years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the permit approval process.

As SB 423 recognizes, the best solution is streamlining the permit approval process. Streamlining lays out simple, objective criteria, and guarantees permit approval if a project can meet those criteria. This incentivizes home-builders who might otherwise be wary of the cost and uncertainty of approval. Instead of a few large corporate developers building in planned communities, permit streamlining can encourage new home building by small “mom and pop”developers who might have only a single investment property. The easier the process becomes, the greater the effect.

In the past, permit streamlining laws have exempted the coastal region, leaving in place the restrictions of the California Coastal Act. But the Coastal Act is a large driver of housing costs in the Coastal Zone — the same area that already houses the vast majority of California’s population.

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