California lawmakers vote to fast-track low-income housing on churches' lands
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers are debating nearly 1,000 bills during the hectic final two weeks of the Legislative session. Here’s action taken by the California Legislature Thursday:
AFFORDABLE HOUSING ON CHURCHES' LANDS
Religious institutions and nonprofit colleges in California could soon turn their parking lots and other properties into low-income housing to help combat the ongoing homeless crisis, lawmakers voted on Thursday.
The legislation would rezone land owned by nonprofit colleges and religious institutions, such as churches, mosques, and synagogues, to allow for affordable housing. They would be able to bypass most local permitting and environmental review rules that can be costly and lengthy.
California is home to 171,000 homeless people — about 30% of all homeless people in the U.S. The crisis has sparked a movement among religious institutions, dubbed “yes in God’s backyard,” or “YIGBY,” in cities across the state, with a number of projects already in the works.
But churches and colleges often face big hurdles trying to convert their surplus land and underutilized parking lots into housing because their land is not zoned for residential use. An affordable housing project in a San Jose church had to go through a rezoning process that took more than two years before it could break ground in 2021.
The goal of this legislation is to carve an easier path to build much-needed housing in the state, said Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener, who authored the bill.
The bill, which was approved by the Assembly, needs the final approval in the state Senate before heading to the desk of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will decide whether to sign it into law.
It would only apply to affordable housing projects, and the law would sunset in 2036.
Democratic Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva, who represents Orange County, said there are hundreds of faith-based organizations and several community colleges in her district that could use this bill as a tool to expedite affordable housing projects.
“If only a small fraction of them chose to build very small amount of units, we could start picking away at this issue one church at a time, one educational institution at a time,” she said Thursday.
Supporters of the bill said it could help add hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units to the state’s housing stock. A recent study by the University of California, Berkeley, Terner Center for Housing Innovation estimated California religious and higher education campuses have more than 170,000 acres (68,797 hectares) of land that would be eligible under the bill.
But several cities opposed the bill and said it would take away local control over housing developments. Environmental groups also worry the bill doesn’t have enough guardrails and would put low-income housing close to polluting areas such as freeways, industrial facilities, and oil and gas plants.
Lawmakers have until Sept. 14 to act on this and other bills. When lawmakers finish, Newsom will have a month to decide whether to sign them into law.
DIVERSE TEXTBOOKS IN SCHOOLS
The Legislature passed a bill to ensure school curricula reflect the cultural and racial diversity of California and the U.S.
The bill would also require school boards to approve instructional materials that include accurate depictions of LGBTQ+ people and their contributions. It would ban school boards from rejecting textbooks because they mention the contributions of people with a particular racial background or sexual orientation.
It’s an issue that has cropped up in many states. The issue garnered renewed attention in California when a Southern California school board, Temecula Valley Unified, rejected an elementary social studies curriculum that included materials mentioning Harvey Milk, a former San Francisco politician and gay rights advocate. Newsom threatened the school board with a $1.5 million fine. The board later reversed course.
State senators debated intensely on the bill. They took a “timeout” after Democratic Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, who chairs the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, said Republican Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh’s comments about the bill were off topic. Republican lawmakers and Democratic Sen. Marie Alvarado-Gil voted against it.
Ochoa Bogh said the bill wouldn’t make sure that school materials would be age-appropriate for students. But Democratic Sen. Lena Gonzalez said school boards would still be able to make those decisions.
Later in the day, the state Assembly gave final sign-off on the bill, sending it to Newsom’s desk.
Democratic Assemblymember Corey Jackson, who introduced the proposal, touted it as a chance to show the nation that California would be “on the right side of history.”
“A yes vote means that not on our watch will these political class wars be declared and use our students and our children as pawns,” Jackson said.
But Republican Majority Leader James Gallagher said the bill would overstep on local school boards’ authority to approve class materials.
STREAMLINING THE HOUSING PERMITTING PROCESS
The state Assembly passed a bill that would extend the life of a landmark law streamlining rules about housing projects in cities that have not met state-mandated goals for affordable housing. The bill is one of the most contentious pieces of housing legislation this year.
Since the original bill took effect in 2018, it has helped fast-track 18,000 homes, with roughly 75% of them being affordable housing, according to the bill’s author, Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener.
The new bill would remove the requirement to hire “skilled and trained workers,” a provision typically sought by the powerful construction trades union, and instead require workers to be paid prevailing wage, which is the average wage paid to workers, laborers and mechanics in a particular area.
The bill had met fierce opposition from the state Coastal Commission and environmental groups in July because it would remove the exemption on streamlined housing development in coastal zones. Opponents worried the bill would place housing in areas prone to sea-level rise or wildfires and make way for luxury apartments, not affordable housing, along the coastline.
Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, a co-author of the bill, said the legislation only applies to coastal areas zoned for multifamily housing and that Wiener has worked with the commission to address critics' concerns. The Coastal Commission no longer opposes the bill.
“We’re extending current law, so it’s not scary,” Wicks said Thursday. “It’s the right thing to do. We know this program works.”
GENDER NEUTRAL BATHROOMS
The state Assembly on Thursday approved a bill to require schools serving first through 12th grade to have at least one gender-neutral bathroom available for students by 2026.
The legislation would apply to schools with multiple female and male restrooms. The bill comes amid debates in California and elsewhere about the rights of transgender and nonbinary students, including whether teachers should notify parents if their child changes pronouns at school.
Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin @sophieadanna