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    Should California’s coast be affordable too?
    • July 7, 2023

    Over the past five years, there haven’t been a lot of happy stories in California housing, with rents and home prices hitting historic highs, forcing many hundreds of thousands of families to leave the state. But Senate Bill 35 is an exception: since adoption in 2018, the law has helped to permit at least 18,000 new homes—homes that are overwhelmingly priced at rates affordable to moderate- and low-income Californians. 

    The idea behind SB 35 was simple: if a jurisdiction is falling behind on housing production, projects that aim to build mixed-income housing and comply with the underlying zoning should enjoy streamlined permitting. The law expires soon, but Senate Bill 423—which is under consideration this legislative session—would extend it for 10 years. A slam dunk for policymakers, right?

    Not so fast: As part of SB 423, legislators are working to expand applicability to include urban areas along the coast, which are currently exempt from permit streamlining. Of course, nobody wants to see natural areas of the coast developed, but the coastal zone covers over 225,000 acres of land that are already developed. Subjecting anything and everything built in these areas to additional layers of review simply does not make sense.

    This zone includes some of the richest parts of the state, including cities like Coronado and Carmel-by-the-Sea, as well as affluent coastal sections of cities like Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. By any reasonable metric, these places are well-suited to additional housing: all enjoy easy access to jobs and universities, and as our state’s interior burns, their temperate coastal climates remain resilient. 

    And yet, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) has come out in opposition to any streamlined permitting for affordable housing within its domain. The commission insists that the added hurdles they impose are not a barrier to affordable housing while insinuating that the bill would strip the CCC of all of its oversight authority and ignore environmental hazards. But they’re off on all three counts.

    First, few can doubt that California makes it uniquely difficult to build housing anywhere near the coast. Even in the best of cases, added hearings and appeals can add months, if not years, to the process—as has recently been the case with mixed-income housing proposals in Santa Cruz and Venice. According to one team of UCLA researchers, this added discretionary review has served to stymie housing production along the coast, raising prices and driving gentrification.  

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    Second, the bill in no way strips the commission of its oversight power. On the contrary, all that would change is that the commission would be held to the same standards as any other agency in California: permitting would need to be objective, predictable, and fair. Unnecessary public hearings and arbitrary decisions would go, but rules that genuinely protect the coast would remain on the books.

    Finally, in areas at risk of sea level rise, SB 423 would virtually never apply. The vast majority of the coastal zone is not at risk, even in an extreme five-foot sea level rise scenario. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration only projects a one-foot sea level rise through 2050). And those pockets that are at risk are already largely excluded by SB 423 prohibitions against building on wetlands, floodways, and protected habitats. 

    The CCC has a mandate to protect public access to the coast. And in many respects, they’ve done a laudable job. But in opposing streamlining bills like SB 423, the commission is missing the mark. What could possibly do more to improve coastal access than to allow more Californians of all incomes to live by the coast? In what sense is access improved by limiting our coast to a strip of aging mansions and strip malls?

    If California is going to get back on a path of housing affordability, every part of the Golden State needs to be building its fair share. That includes the coast. 

    Nolan Gray is the research director for California YIMBY and a professional city planner.

    ​ Orange County Register