SB 35 Effects on the CEQA Process for Housing Projects

In 2017, California passed 15 bills designed to address the state’s housing problems, including solutions to streamline housing approvals, enact inclusionary housing requirements for residential rental projects, and generate funds for affordable housing projects. Three bills—SB 35, SB 540, and AB 73—have the greatest effect on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process for housing projects.

This article, the first of a three-part series, examines SB 35, a bill that bypasses the standard CEQA process and streamlines approval for multifamily projects.

SB 35: Streamlining Approval for Affordable Multifamily Projects

SB 35 provides a fairly straightforward ministerial approval process for certain affordable multifamily projects, thus streamlining project approval and circumventing CEQA altogether. The legislation applies to multifamily residential developments on urban infill sites in jurisdictions that don’t meet their share of regional housing needs. The project must be:

  • A multifamily development of at least two units with a percentage of low-income units;
  • In an incorporated or unincorporated urbanized area;
  • At least 75% surrounded by urban development; and
  • On a site zoned or designated by the general plan for residential or mixed use.

Developments that include subsidized units must adhere to affordability restrictions and projects must meet all objective zoning standards, including density—taking into account any density bonuses.

Projects Ineligible for Streamlining

However, a project site may be ineligible for streamlining via SB 35 if it is:

  • Located within the coastal zone;
  • Contains prime farmland, farmland of statewide importance, or federal wetlands;
  • Located in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone or on a hazardous site;
  • Within a delineated earthquake fault zone, flood plain, or floodway as mapped by FEMA;
  • Within a conservation area as designated by Natural Community Conservation Planning;
  • Located on land with habitat for protected species or land under a conservation easement; or
  • Requires demolition of certain categories of housing or a historic structure.

Developer Requirements

The project developer is also subject to economic requirements. SB 35 provides streamlining relief from the Subdivision Map Act for projects that are subject to prevailing wage and those that are funded by low-income housing tax credit or that agree to use a “skilled and trained” workforce.
Projects of 10 or more units (unless classified as a public works project) are subject to prevailing wage requirements. In addition, large projects (75+ units) in populated areas (coastal: 225k people; non-coastal: 550k) are subject to a “skilled and trained” workforce requirement. However, this 75-unit threshold will decrease after 2020.

The Gist

Although this streamlining bill is limited to true infill sites with relatively little biological or agricultural value, it is effective since it circumvents CEQA before considering a housing or infill exemption. The prevailing wage requirement may be a barrier to all but the strongest housing markets.

Further Reading

The meat of this bill is located in new Government Code section 65913.4. It also amends Government Code 65400 and 65582.1. The City and County of San Francisco has been quick to implement SB 35. Its website is an example of how this law can be incorporated into the existing planning process.

Part 2 of the three-part series will look at the implications of SB 540, a bill that authorizes workforce opportunity zones. Part 3 will review AB 73, a bill that establishes housing sustainability districts.

For more information, contact Senior Environmental Project Manager Brian Grattidge at