How big will Newsom go on CA housing change?

This article appeared in Calmatters

Residential single family homes under construction in the community of Valley Center on June 3, 2021. Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters

From CalMatters’ housing reporter Ben Christopher:

Ever since a California court ruled earlier this year that UC Berkeley violated the state’s premier environmental protection law by failing to account for “student-generated noise” at a proposed housing development, we knew this was coming.

In response to that ruling, Gov. Gavin Newsom called the state’s environmental review process “clearly broken.” He labeled those who wielded it to block the dorm project “selfish” and “NIMBYs.”

“The law needs to change,” he said in a statement.

Today, the governor is apparently ready to make good on that pledge.

This morning the governor will propose an overhaul to the way that infrastructure projects get approved in California, a step that some advocates say is necessary if the state is to meet its ambitious clean energy, transportation and housing goals.

At heart of the debate: The California Environmental Quality Act (which acronym-loving policy geeks pronounce “see-kwah”), a five-decade-old law that requires governments to study and minimize the environmental impact of any decision they make — and that gives anyone opposed to the decision ample opportunity to sue.

The governor previewed the big announcement at a California Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting in Sacramento on Thursday.

  • Newsom: “We will be putting out the most ambitious streamlining and permitting and judicial reforms in our state in a half century…If we get nothing else done in the next three years, this may be one of the most consequential things that we can actually deliver.”

That was a big applause line at the gathering of business leaders and it’s no wonder why. The law has long been the target of industry groups, who argue that it gives environmental activists, special interests and ticked-off locals the undue ability to delay and kill projects they don’t like. 

Defenders of the law say it’s a vital tool that gives the environment and politically powerless communities a seat at the table. But in recent years even some liberals have come around to the conclusion that the law is as much an impediment to progress as it is pollution.

The big question: Just how far will Newsom go? Does he plan to propose a full statutory makeover or will he propose to add yet another set of exemptions for specific, politically-favored projects (major sports stadiums are the most eyebrow-raising example, but there are also specific carve outs for bike lanes, homeless shelters and rooftop solar)?

Flash back to 2012: then-Gov. Jerry Brown called the effort to rewrite the law “the Lord’s work” — an endorsement of the end goal, but also an acknowledgment of the daunting politics

But those politics may have changed, largely thanks to the state’s housing affordability crisis driven by a profound shortage of homes

As for Berkeley, where the student housing kerfuffle provided so much of the political momentum behind today’s announcement: The California Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to take up the case.


More statewide awards: The California News Publishers Association announced more awards Thursday in its statewide contest for 2022 coverage in the largest digital news sites:

Focus on homeownership: CalMatters is hosting a panel discussion 8:30-9:30 a.m. Tuesday, May 23. In “Generation Locked Out: Is Homeownership in California Now Only for the Rich?” reporter Alejandro Lazo will moderate a panel of experts and advocates who will discuss the affordability crisis and what it means for first-time homebuyers. Register here to attend in person at our Sacramento office, or virtually.


The suspense is killing us

The Senate's Appropriations Committee hearing in Sacramento on May 18, 2023. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters
The Senate Appropriations Committee holds its “suspense file” hearing in Sacramento on May 18, 2023. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters

The big day where legislators decide the fate of more than 1,000 bills held in the “suspense file” has come and gone. On Thursday, the Assembly appropriations committee killed 220 bills and passed 535, while the Senate committee killed 90 and approved 326. The bills that survived still must advance through floor votes before June 2 to stay alive for this session.

The biannual culling of bills that have a fiscal impact of at least $50,000 took place while the state tackles a $31.5 billion shortfall — a challenge recognized by Assemblymember Chris Holden, a Pasadena Democrat and chairperson of the appropriations committee.

  • Holden: “It is a different time that we have to operate in, so it is a lens that we have to look through all the bills. To the extent there were some real pressures that we thought we needed to address, we did.”

For more details about this session’s suspense file results, get the full rundown from the CalMatters’ team. Here are some of the biggest winners and losers that emerged from Thursday’s hearings:


The oil industry: Several bills that would have held oil companies more accountable did not advance. One would have made them liable for illnesses caused by operations near residences, schools and hospitals, while another would have further expanded California’s greenhouse gas emissions goals.

Legislative staff union supporters: The bill that would give legislative staffers the right to unionize heads for a floor vote. Though previous efforts failed, the bill’s author, Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, a Democrat from Inglewood, told CalMatters that this year, “the political will is here.”

Building trades council, sort of: A bill that would renew a law to expedite affordable housing survived, but with some notable tweaks. The law lets developers skip a few permitting steps if construction crews are paid a higher wage or are union workers. Though the union-hire criterion was almost nixed (to the dismay of the trades council), the language stayed for some projects.


Poor families: Two bills aimed to support low-income families won’t make it into law this year. One would have raised the minimum payout provided through the state Earned Income Tax Credit and the other would have extended a tax credit for families with children.

Homelessness advocates: Bills that would have pushed cities to do more towards supporting homelessness died. One would have required cities to plan enough housing for their entire homeless populations. The other would have made it easier to build temporary housing on vacant land.

Abortion rights activists, sort of: In a state that voted to enshrine abortion access in its constitution, legislators handed activists a rare loss by killing a bill that would have required the state’s health department to launch a public awareness campaign against misleading information from crisis pregnancy centers.

UC takes first step towards hiring undocumented students

Yadira Dumet leads the Opportunity for All rally at UCLA in Los Angeles on May 17, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

From Carmen González and Matthew Reagan of CalMatters’ College Journalism Network:

The University of California Board of Regents unanimously voted Thursday to begin exploring whether and how to employ undocumented students on campuses, creating a working group to come up with a plan by November. 

The move comes in response to a campaign led by students and UCLA’s Center for Immigration Law and Policy, and endorsed by some prominent immigration and constitutional law scholars, that maintained that the university, as a state agency, is exempt from the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the federal law that bans employers from hiring undocumented immigrants. 

The proposed policy would likely have a ripple effect on other states and public universities at a time when the federal government has stopped accepting new applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — a program that provided work permits and protection from deportation for some undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children. It would allow an estimated 4,000 undocumented students at the University of California to apply for paid internships, student leadership positions in campus organizations, and graduate research and teaching assistant positions. 

  • Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a board member: “We know that DACA provides protections for young people in our country and in our system to simply live their lives, like their peers. But in this post-DACA environment, because of a lack of action by the federal government, our students don’t have the same protections.”

Hundreds of UC students rallied on the UCLA campus Wednesday in support of the campaign, chanting “undocumented and unafraid.” Sociology student Diana Ortiz Aguilar said she has noticed herself falling behind her peers at UC Berkeley due to her status. Like other undocumented students, she said, she has limited opportunities for internships in her field. Even before DACA applications were paused, not all undocumented students qualified for work permits under the program, and many also don’t receive financial aid.

If UC starts hiring undocumented students, “it would mean that we get more opportunities,” Aguilar said. “We can actually use our degrees and actually start working towards developing a career for us.”

Any decision by UC could face legal challenges, and Thursday’s vote did not commit the regents to a particular path. But regents who pushed for the change, including board chairperson Richard Leib and former Assembly Speaker John Pérez, said they were sold on the principle, if not yet clear on the details.

Worker safety heats up

A warehouse worker sorts packages at an Amazon fulfillment center on Nov. 11, 2010. Photo by Ross D. Franklin, AP Photo

A warehouse worker sorts packages at an Amazon fulfillment center on Nov. 11, 2010. Photo by Ross D. Franklin, AP Photo

The heat is rising — and so are workers’ frustrations.

On Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board held a hearing in San Diego to draft new standards to protect workers from excessive heat indoors. The meeting has been years overdue — in 2016 the Legislature passed a law that required the department to create new standards by January 2019. 

Dozens of warehouse workers, delivery drivers and restaurant employees attended the meeting, according to Nicole Foy of CalMatters’ California Divide team. Some workers described laboring under sweltering heat and recalled incidents of colleagues suffering from heart palpitations or heat stroke.

  • Viviana Gonzalez, a UPS driver in Palmdale: “We’re out there working in 115 degrees and the back of the trucks get to 140 or 150. Our bodies go through a lot of stress.”

Setting specific heat standards for indoor workers would be similar to state regulations for outdoor workers. This includes mandated breaks, designating cool-down areas and providing safety measures when temperatures reach a certain level.

The issue is particularly important in the Inland Empire and other portions of Southern California, which experience high temperatures year-round. The Inland Empire has also witnessed a warehouse industry boom since the pandemic.

But some industry representatives pushed back on certain regulations. Food and restaurant industry representatives argued that requiring temperature adjustments for food equipment could run afoul with health and food safety codes. Smaller employers also may not have the space to carve out cool-down areas.

The board is expected to vote on the rules by February 2024.


CalMatters Commentary

Two views on Senate Democrats’ plan to increase business taxes to help cover the state budget deficit:

Big corporations should pay their fair share of taxes, argues state Sen. Nancy Skinner, an Oakland Democrat who is chairperson of the Senate budget committee.

Raising taxes on businesses could chase them out of California, argues state Sen. Roger Niello, a Roseville Republican who is vice chairperson of the Senate budget committee.


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