By Megan Barr
BERKELEY, CA — California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently vowed to restructure the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to allow universities to fast-track student housing developments without meeting all current environmental regulations.
Bill SB 886 proposes several exemptions to CEQA requirements for public universities and university housing development projects. Currently, The CEQA requires completion of an environmental impact review which undergoes two rounds of independent third-party review before a development project can begin.
Under SB 886, public universities would still be required to meet a laundry-list of qualifications in order to lessen environmental harm to the community caused by development including: zero net additional greenhouse gas emissions, creation of a transportation demand management system, onsite renewable energy generation, and offsite emission reduction plans for the surrounding community.
The CEQA restructuring was prompted by UC Berkeley’s $312 million plan to turn the historical People’s Park into a complex that would house over 1,100 students, but local residents fear harmful environmental repercussions from the revision. Courts previously barred UC Berkeley from moving forward with the housing facility, claiming the plan did not meet CEQA requirements.
Because CEQA dual-review is commonly drawn out in court, this creates a timing issue for People’s Park Housing, since UC Berkeley is notorious for unaffordable and limited student housing. If SB 886 is approved, UC Berkeley would only need to satisfy one round of review for the housing project proposal instead of two.
UC Berkeley currently provides only 23 percent of its student housing—a critical issue that Newsom aims to mitigate with SB 886.
When the bill faced opposition in lower CA state courts, Newsom released a statement saying, “California cannot afford to be held hostage by [local residents] who weaponize CEQA to block student and affordable housing. The selfish mindset is driving up housing prices and making our state less affordable. The law needs to change, and I am committed to working with lawmakers this year to making more changes so our state can build the housing we desperately need.”
Student activists and opponents of the bill argue that the idea is “a blow to vital environmental regulation that fails to address the fundamental causes of the student housing crisis — poor planning by universities and insufficient investment.” They claim the real solution lies in the university’s failure to provide adequate housing prior to increasing enrollment, which has grown so high that the issue reached the Supreme court earlier this year.
Although the bill has faced court opposition so far, public universities remain hopeful that SB 886 will pass when it is taken to the Supreme Court of California in coming months.
Megan Barr is a writer for the Vanguard at Berkeley’s Social Justice Desk.