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Why We're Opposing SB 423 Unless Amended

SB 423 is a bill currently proposed in the State Legislature that, among other provisions, would fast track qualified multi-unit housing in the Coastal Zone. Surfrider strongly supports the expansion of affordable housing in the Coastal Zone (generally 1,000 feet inland from the ocean, but farther in some areas).

All too many Surfrider volunteers, members and staff who dedicate their lives to coastal access and ocean protection cannot themselves live and raise families along California’s coastline because it is so expensive. However, Surfrider is proposing amendments to the bill because we know affordable housing can be achieved consistent with the essential protections for safety, public access, and the environment that are provided by the Coastal Act.

Our 'oppose unless amended' position is based on the fact that we fundamentally believe Californians should not have to choose between affordable housing and a publicly accessible coastline. We also oppose streamlining development in areas that are subject to flooding and erosion caused by sea level rise.

The good parts about the bill are important to acknowledge: SB 423's best feature is that it pushes back the “sunset” date for incentives created in an earlier law (SB 35) that are supporting increased housing density near urban transit hubs - this model encourages development of more affordable housing and helps fight climate change by limiting sprawl and making it easier for people to take public transportation.

However, SB 423 as currently written also fast tracks approvals for select housing projects in the Coastal Zone by exempting them from compliance with hard-won provisions of the Coastal Act that protect the public interestThe bill’s current language could result in rubber stamp approval of projects in the Coastal Zone if they meet a very short list of basic requirements, exempting them from important policies to protect people and the environment. 

If SB 423 passes as written, the Coastal Commission will not be able to review projects for consistency with the Coastal Act’s provisions for public access and recreation. Under current law, the Coastal Commission ensures that coastal projects preserve or expand coastal access for the public — which is one of the main reasons today that the coastline is not walled off by private development. Additionally when the Coastal Commission maintains its authority to review these projects, it ensures that projects are designed to prevent impacts to protected wildlife species and result in mitigation (public benefits) when a project impacts public lands and resources.

SB 423 takes away the state's ability to apply conditions to private development that result in public access to the coastline and mitigation for communities. This is a major threat to coastal access and to the law that currently upholds coastal access (The Coastal Act.)

Another fundamental problem with the bill's policy pertaining to the coastal zone is that it opens the door for projects to be built in areas that are vulnerable to flooding and erosion caused by sea level rise. As of late August amendments, Surfrider does not support language to allow projects to be built on eligible coastal properties as long as they are not vulnerable to 5 feet of sea level rise. This is not an appropriate way to plan for flooding caused by sea level rise in the state because sea level rise science is constantly evolving, and best science today already predicts up to 10 feet of sea level rise in the state by 2100.

This language also offers room to determine vulnerability based on local governments' coastal hazards vulnerability assessments — many of which are not based on up to date science and have served in the past only as guidance documents that may include projections based on low sea level rise scenarios as opposed to more likely moderate or high scenarios.

It's also unclear how 'sea level rise vulnerability' is defined in SB 423 - our coastline is not only subject to flooding vulnerabilities but also to erosion that is accelerated by sea level rise as well as groundwater shoaling that can drown properties that aren't even directly on the coast. Houses across the state’s coastline are already flooding and slipping off eroding bluffs because of sea level rise impacts that communities haven’t prepared for, with impacts in the state forecasted to reach hundreds of billions of dollars in the decades ahead. 

Surfrider believes fundamentally that California should not be siting any housing in harm’s way and we support the Coastal Commission's approach to permit-by-permit decisionmaking with factors in a variety of sea level rise impacts based on best science.

Finally, our decades of experience in protecting the coast from privatization positions us to strongly question the bill's real ability to make living along the coast more affordable. SB 423 is popular because it proposes to make it easy for developers to build housing; which theoretically adds more affordable units in California and broadly shifts market rates due to increased housing supply. Unfortunately, this bill will not have such an effect in the coastal zone, where property values are dictated by ocean views. The coastal zone is one of the nation’s most lucrative strips of real estate, and the bill only requires qualifying developments to include 10% of affordable housing in qualifying projects.

It is very likely that developers having to pay high prices to buy property in the coastal zone will take advantage of SB 423's streamlining by building luxury units that contain only the minimum number of affordable units. This will not result in more affordable market values, even if this has been true in other parts of the state where property values are lower or even where affluent cities are subject to minimum housing production goals.

One legislator from Los Angeles recently stated in the Assembly Natural Resources hearing on this bill that it would not at all result in affordable housing for the low income earners in her community. Another pointed out that median Coastal Zone housing prices in her district are in the multiple millions of dollars. These types of housing units– which are likely to comprise 90% of eligible fast tracked coastal developments – just as often serve as investment properties and vacation homes for the very wealthy, rather than contributing to alleviation of the state’s affordable housing crisis.  

To summarize, this bill will effectively make it easier to develop in the coastal zone, but it is unlikely to lower the rent for average people. Meanwhile, the policy being proposed for streamlining development strikes at the heart of the Coastal Act. 

Wildfire advocates and environmental justice advocates are also arguing that the bill currently eases development in wildfire-prone areas and near to toxic sites. SB 423 should be amended to better focus on streamlining housing in places where development is safe and where it will benefit working Californians, not just luxury developers and the wealthiest property owners. Accelerating affordable housing in the coastal zone should also remain a priority - it should just be done in a way that preserves the access and preservation that makes the California coast so special in the first place.

Our proposal is to amend SB 423 so that it does not apply in the coastal zone, and to ask lawmakers to additionally use their authority to restore the Coastal Commission's historic authority to set robust minimum targets for affordable housing development for all Coastal Zone proposals; thereby benefiting people that need housing, not just developers.

Such targets could be updated to reflect modern data, vision and priorities to accelerate housing development that benefits every day California.