Homeless crisis: Newsom proposes ditching environmental review when converting hotels into housing

San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2020

By Kevin Fagan


Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing that state environmental regulations be waived for cities and counties that want to convert hotels into homeless housing using federal coronavirus relief funding.


His plan was sent to the California Legislature on Friday to be added to the state budget negotiations, and if it remains intact it would eliminate a key tool opponents use to fight projects they don’t want in their neighborhoods. By law, the budget is supposed to be passed by June 15.


Before the pandemic hit this winter, the governor had said he wanted regulations under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) eased for many types of homeless housing, and this current plan — sent in the form of a “trailer bill” addition to budget talks — narrows that ambition.


It could have a huge effect, however, in cities such as San Francisco, where more than 1,100 hotel rooms leased by the city as of Tuesday were housing homeless people vulnerable to or suffering from COVID-19. The governor’s “Project Roomkey” has acquired 15,000 hotel rooms statewide for homeless people during the pandemic, about half of which have been occupied to date.


Jeff Cretan, spokesman for San Francisco Mayor London Breed, said his boss hopes Newsom’s plan makes it through the budget talks that lie ahead.


“The mayor has been focused on reducing barriers and bureaucracy that get in the way of building housing, and we’re fully supportive of anything like this that helps us turn hotels into housing faster,” Cretan said.


Hotel industry leaders told The Chronicle on Tuesday that they wanted to examine the proposal before taking a position on it.


With no quick end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic or the statewide programs that are sheltering thousands of homeless people in leased hotel rooms, the prospect of snatching up hotels for permanent housing is just that for now — a prospect. But homeless organizations have said it could be a win-win in the future, ensuring revenue for hotel owners who might struggle in the economic downturn while at the same time creating cheap homeless housing in cities like San Francisco, where such housing typically costs north of $600,000 a unit.


“I think it’s great,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who last year succeeded in getting legislation passed waiving CEQA regulations when building service-enriched Navigation Center shelters. Noting that California has a quarter of the nation’s homeless population, at 151,000 — “an outrageously extreme situation” — he said the state needs to be assertively creative about keeping people indoors.


On Tuesday, the Senate Housing Committee that Wiener chairs approved bills he wrote that would expand his Navigation Center waiver to all shelters, and speed up construction of affordable housing around the state on church properties and other lands. Newsom’s proposal for hotels would be a useful addition to that strategy, Wiener said.


“If we have underutilized hotels or motels that we can convert into housing — well, permanent housing is the solution to homelessness,” he said. “And if you have an existing place with a bedroom and a bathroom, and it just needs a little work to convert it into housing, then it’s not even a question.


“That should not be subject to CEQA. That to me is just something that needs to be done.”

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