As California’s housing crisis threatens higher education expansion and upends college towns, State Senator Scott Wiener on Tuesday introduced a bill to streamline and spur student housing development and professors on state campuses.
The proposal, Senate Bill 886, exempts certain residential projects proposed by public colleges and universities on their campuses from being blocked under the auspices of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Projects would still have to meet state environmental standards, but would not be subject to prosecution under the CEQA, which has been used to block or stifle college and university plans.
Wiener, the San Francisco Democrat and chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, said the housing crisis has left too many students and faculty without stable housing. “It’s real,” Wiener said. “It affects the learning ability of our young students.
The proposal was met with skepticism by a Berkeley neighborhood group leading opposition to UC Berkeley’s long-term campus expansion plan. “It’s not clear to me that this bill solves Berkeley’s problem,” said Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods. A court ruling on the group’s lawsuit alleging the university failed to properly adhere to CEQA could cut admissions by a third this year.
The state’s housing crisis has hit state and community college students and faculty hard. A 2021 state report revealed widespread homelessness and housing insecurity among students – estimating that more than one million students struggled to find housing while attending college courses.
Wiener said the bill was under consideration long before the court’s recent decision in the UC Berkeley battle. But he thinks it will limit the use of state environmental law to block or throttle new housing projects.
The bill would cover on-campus projects of the University of California (UC), California State University (CSU), and California Community College (CCC) systems. It also requires project developers to pay construction workers the prevailing wage and to use skilled labour, a key provision for gaining support from trade organizations. The exemption does not apply to projects on farms or wetlands, in high fire areas, or redevelopment that demolishes affordable or rent-controlled housing.
Major developments would be subject to ministerial review, but most importantly could avoid lengthy and costly delays caused by environmental challenges.
The bill is backed by pro-housing, student and faculty groups. It has also received key state building and construction trades approval. Jeremy Smith, deputy legislative director for building trades, said the bill would ensure fair treatment for workers on major developments and new projects would provide training for apprentices. “We don’t take CEQA streamlining lightly,” he said.
But slow-growing groups and advocates of local control of development are likely to align themselves against the measure.
Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods sued the university in 2018, claiming it violated state environmental law by failing to plan for or adequately manage the community impacts of a surge in enrollment. A state appeals court this month upheld a lower court order to freeze admissions to UC Berkeley as the lawsuit continues to be litigated, which could cut 3,050 new students and transfer from their incoming class.
Bokovoy said his group supports new housing for UC Berkeley students and faculty, but wants university administrators to agree to freeze admissions until they find answers to their lack of accommodations. “The solution is within their reach,” he said.
Faculty representatives said on Tuesday that the lack of housing made it difficult for poorly paid lecturers and instructors to teach in California schools. Students said housing insecurity leads to dropout rates, high student debt and poor quality education.
UC Berkeley senior Josh Lewis said the lawsuits and challenges of expanding universities have limited opportunities for a new generation of leaders. “Every admissions denial based on outdated law, every housing project shut down, every student forced to choose between having a home and having an education,” he said, “is preventing our communities from showing leadership. “
The bill will go through several public hearings and will require Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature to become law.