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City Of LA Rejects Environmental Challenges Of Affordable Housing Projects

A man with medium-tone skin wears a long-sleeve shirt with two buttons and stands in front of a CAT bulldozer and an apartment building.
Developer Steven Scheibe stands in front of an excavator on a dirt lot in L.A.'s Sawtelle neighborhood where he plans to build 44 units of affordable housing.
David Wagner
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Months after the city of Los Angeles accepted environmental appeals from opponents of affordable housing projects that were supposed to be exempt from that type of review, officials have now rejected those appeals.

The projects in question were filed through Mayor Karen Bass’ signature housing program, known as ED1, designed to speed up the approval of new housing for low and moderate-income renters. The city of L.A. is suffering from a worsening shortage of affordable housing and, under state law, must plan for 185,000 new low-income homes by 2029. At the current pace of building, Los Angeles is lagging far behind that mandate.

Why it matters

ED1 is supposed to fast-track this sorely needed housing in part by exempting 100% affordable projects from challenges under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Affordable housing advocates say laws intended to protect the environment have instead been used as weapons by opponents who don’t want to see low-income housing built in their neighborhoods or near their businesses.

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Despite reassurances under the mayor’s initiative that the city would prevent such delays, developers recently have seen the city accept CEQA appeals for some ED1 projects.

LAist first reported on CEQA appeals coming back into play earlier this year. Steven Scheibe, a developer behind one project in the Sawtelle neighborhood on L.A.’s Westside, said he was relieved to see the city ultimately decide to reject the appeal delaying his development.

“I don't think they should have accepted it in the first place,” said Scheibe. “It slowed down our project. It took about two months. It took thousands of dollars … It was unnecessary in the sense that the mayor's executive directive was intended to avoid this sort of scenario.”

City’s position: State environment law is ‘not a basis’ for overturning ED1

The city’s Planning Department sent rejection letters earlier this month to the groups that filed appeals against the Sawtelle project and another ED1 project in Sherman Oaks. In those letters, planning officials said the appeals were improper.

“Your stated justification for the CEQA appeal is to challenge the legality of ED1,” the letters told opponents of the projects. “This is not a basis for challenging the City's compliance with CEQA.”

In an earlier interview with LAist, one opponent of the Sawtelle project — Allen Pachtman, who owns an apartment building next to the proposed development site — said he wasn’t sure the new 44-unit building would harm the environment, but he expected it to devalue his property.

We emailed Pachtman and his attorney for comment on the city’s rejection of the CEQA appeal, but did not hear back from either. Their original challenge made no mention of potential environmental harms, instead claiming that “ED1 was not ratified by the City Council, as required by state law and is, therefore, invalid.”

Bass directive has brought successes … and setbacks

Even with the mixed messages over whether or not these projects are subject to environmental review, developers have flooded ED1 with applications for new affordable housing. CalMatters recently reported that the city has received plans for more than 16,000 apartments so far, greatly outpacing figures from previous years.

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"ED1 is saving projects at least six months of processing time," said Clara Karger, a spokesperson for the L.A. Mayor's Office. "Since ED1, the City has seen an 85% increase in the number of affordable housing units being proposed."

But the program hasn’t been without setbacks. The city is now facing lawsuits from housing advocates over decisions to retroactively deny fast-tracking to proposed projects near single-family homes. That has put an additional 1,443 apartments at risk of never getting built in higher-income areas of the San Fernando Valley.

Scheibe said he hopes the city’s rejection of the CEQA appeal will allow his team to start building in Sawtelle soon. But he worries the city may accept another appeal, if opponents try to challenge his project from a slightly different angle.

“To introduce that uncertainty into timelines and actually being able to proceed with your proposed project if you follow the guidelines to a T really discourages, in my opinion, the potential effectiveness of the executive directive,” Scheibe said.

What questions do you have about housing in Southern California?

Updated March 13, 2024 at 4:39 PM PDT
This story updated with comment from the L.A. mayor's office.
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