Environmental review can be both lengthy and costly for developers, with required public review periods and the need to hire multiple specialty consultants. Additionally, the CEQA review process has been misused by housing opponents to delay and prevent housing projects from being built. However, the State has enacted a number of CEQA exemptions in recent years in an effort to facilitate housing production. Gaining familiarity with and implementing these exemptions for qualified projects may be a good starting point for jurisdictions wishing to streamline review processes, as this requires only procedural changes. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has released two Technical Advisories, one for conventional housing projects and one for affordable, transitional, and supportive housing, which summarize various available statutory and categorical exemptions (see Available Resources below).
The State Legislature’s efforts to incentivize housing development through statutory CEQA exemptions as outlined above have created significant opportunities to streamline project review, particularly for projects that contain affordable units and/or are located near transit. For some developers, the opportunity to bypass a lengthy EIR process may be a factor in whether affordable units are included in the project.
However, understanding the nuances of these statutory exemptions can be challenging for both city staff and developers. This is compounded by the fact that many of the exemptions have similar components or requirements, such as project location and proximity to transit, number of units, and proportion of affordable units.
Relevant State Law
Numerous bills have amended CEQA regulations to facilitate certain types of housing development. This list is not exhaustive and Public Resources/Government Code sections are referenced below for clarity.
Public Resources Code Section 21159.24, Infill Housing in Urbanized Areas, applies to urban infill projects that have less than 100 units and contain 5 to 10 percent affordable units (based on level of affordability) and are within the half mile of a major transit stop.
Public Resources Code Section 21155.1, Transit Priority Projects, applies to Transit Priority Projects, as defined in the law, must have fewer than 200 units, and contain 5 to 20 percent affordable units (based on level of affordability).
Public Resources Code Section 21094.5, Infill Housing, applies to residential/mixed-use infill projects that a minimum density of 20 units/acre or an FAR of at least 0.75, among other requirements. There is no affordability component required for this exemption.
Public Resources Code Section 21155.4, Transit Oriented Housing, applies to residential and mixed-use projects within a transit priority area and within a specific plan area for which an EIR has been certified.
Government Code Section 65457, Housing Covered by a Specific Plan, applies to residential projects within a specific plan adopted after January 1, 1980, with a certified EIR.
Public Resources Code Section 21159.23, Low Income Housing, applies to infill projects of 100 units or less in which all units are affordable to low-income households, subject to other limitation.
Public Resources Code Section 21080.50, Interim Motel Housing, applies to the conversion of a motel, hotel, or hostel to supportive or transitional housing.
California and the San Joaquin Valley Experience
In 2017, the Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) published a survey of California’s cities and counties that assessed CEQA impacts on housing production. The survey compiled data on all residential projects under CEQA review and consisting of five or more units. The survey identified 1,417 housing projects for which CEQA streamlining was the predominant type of environmental review. Of the streamlined projects, 26 percent used categorical exemptions, while 14 percent used program EIR tiering.
The survey conducted for the San Joaquin Valley REAP Report asked staff at 41 Cities and Counties a range of questions related to housing development. Several respondents cited CEQA streamlining as a means for accelerating housing development. The State of California continues to adopt regulations that serve to reduce barriers to housing development associated with CEQA.
Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR). Technical Advisory: CEQA Review of Housing Projects.
Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. Site Check Interactive Map. Currently in Beta format, Site Check is a mapping tool developed in coordination with HCD that allows users to see if selected parcels may qualify for an existing CEQA streamlining option. It is intended to be a “first step” for developers and agency staff in considering how CEQA may apply to a housing project. Version 1.0 is expected in late 2021 or early 2022. Check https://opr.ca.gov/ceqa/ceqa-housing.html for updates.
Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, Technical Advisory, CEQA Review of Housing Projects.
Sacramento Area Council of Governments, Senate Bill 743 Implementation Tools (June 2020).
Southern California Association of Governments, SB 375 and CEQA Streamlining.