A bill awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature could soon make it harder to fight the construction of new shelters and housing for homeless people in Los Angeles.
Assembly Bill 1197 would exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act any Los Angeles shelter or homeless housing project that gets funding from several state and local sources, including a $1.2 billion bond measure passed by L.A. voters. The landmark environmental law has often been used to challenge such projects in court.
The bill, authored by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), was championed by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. If signed, it would exempt such projects in the city until 2025.
Santiago said he pushed the bill because homeless housing and shelters weren't being built quickly enough.
"I represent skid row and we're just tired of it not getting done," he said. "We decided to push as hard as we possibly can and to use every tool that we had available to us to take care of this homelessness problem."
Santiago said he focused specifically on L.A. because he thought it would be easier to pass such restrictions in a narrower region. AB 1197 was approved unanimously by both houses of the state Legislature.
The bill is the latest skirmish in a long-running battle over homeless shelters and the landmark law, commonly known as CEQA, which requires developers and government agencies to account for how a new project would affect the environment of the surrounding area.
Neighborhood activists in San Francisco and Venice have cited CEQA in recent court battles over proposed shelters, to the chagrin of homeless advocates who complain that the law is being abused.
AB 1197 "will help make sure that high-quality publicly funded short-term and supportive housing — which is already heavily regulated — can move forward quickly and not be delayed by a well-funded minority for disingenuous reasons, like we've seen in Venice," said Tommy Newman, who runs the Everyone In campaign that advocates for homeless housing on behalf of the United Way of Greater L.A.
Jane Nguyen, one of the founders of the homeless advocacy group KTown for All, applauded the bill. CEQA "is being weaponized to obstruct the construction of emergency housing for homeless people," she argued.
But Venice resident Robin Rudisill, who previously ran for a City Council seat in Los Angeles, countered that eliminating environmental review was the "wrong tactic" for combating the homelessness crisis. She lamented that the bill had been amended late in the process to expand the scope of homelessness projects that would be exempt from CEQA.
"To just take away our environmental protections is not the answer," Rudisill said. "Because it never ends — and pretty soon they'll want to do it for something else."
Attorney Jeff Lewis, who is representing the Venice Stakeholders Assn. in a lawsuit over a proposed shelter on the site of a former bus yard, said their case would not be thwarted by the bill because it did not apply retroactively to such projects. However, he said he was alarmed that, if it becomes law, it will block similar suits in the future.
"The whole point of CEQA is, what are the effects of a project and how can we mitigate those impacts?" Lewis said. "Now all we're going to do is approve it."
The bill could complicate at least one other lawsuit, however: Two groups in Venice invoked CEQA when they sued the city over two ordinances passed last year that were meant to smooth the way for homeless housing to be built. The Oxford Triangle Assn. and Fight Back, Venice! argued that the city had failed to properly vet the ordinances under the California environmental law.
Now those two ordinances could be exempt because AB 1179 specifically states that CEQA does not apply to them.
"The only possible explanation is that they're trying to kill the lawsuit," said Christian Wrede, a founding member of Fight Back, Venice! He said his group was nonetheless confident that its suit would survive, but declined to provide further details.
Under the ordinances challenged by the groups, the city can allow many homeless housing projects to avoid a lengthy process that includes environmental review. In light of the lawsuits, however, L.A. has been asking developers who want to use that easier process to agree that they are "pursuing the development at my own risk" — and many have chosen to go the traditional, if harder route instead.
The mayor's aides said the bill would go further than existing city ordinances, covering not only planning decisions, but also any action to award money for homeless housing or shelter projects that could also have triggered such a review. Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar said the purpose of the bill was to "clear the way and create as many avenues as possible" for getting homeless housing built quickly.
The exemptions for the two ordinances were added to AB 1197 late in the legislative session— a move that Wrede called "underhanded." Members of his Venice group sent emails to lawmakers this week, denouncing the bill as "an insult to democracy and the rule of law."
Santiago said that the bill had long addressed easing environmental review for homeless housing and that he had always been open to changes to strengthen it. L.A. is just a starting point, he suggested.
Ultimately, "it should be statewide," he said. "If any municipality or region is serious about solving homelessness, they should have been calling and they should have been asking to get in this bill."
AB 1197 applies to emergency shelter projects in specific zones of L.A. that use funding from sources including the California Homeless Emergency Aid Program and Measure H sales tax, which was approved by L.A. County voters. The bill also applies to supportive housing projects funded under initiatives, including the state's No Place Like Home program and the bond measure Proposition HHH.
In recent years, state lawmakers have passed multiple bills aimed at exempting homeless shelters from CEQA. Two measures have allowed shelter projects to sidestep the law when a local government approves them.
But those efforts have not quashed legal challenges tied to other aspects of those projects, such as their funding. Earlier this year, in response to threats of a CEQA lawsuit against a proposed shelter in San Francisco's Embarcadero neighborhood, Newsom signed a new law that aimed to speed along similar projects in that city.