The Mercury News

Critics: Utility delays add to housing woes

Bill aims to force PG&E to more quickly connect completed apartment projects to the power grid

- By Ethan Varian evarian@bayareanew­

Add waiting for the lights to turn on to the laundry list of delays holding up urgently needed housing in California.

Newly constructe­d apartment buildings across the northern half of the state are sitting empty for months as Pacific Gas & Electric Co. drags its feet connecting them to the power grid, according to developers and housing advocates. They say they utility's increasing­ly slow pace is also driving up building costs, creating yet another challenge to solving the state's worsening housing crisis.

This month, Scott Wiener, a Democratic state senator from San Francisco, crafted a bill to force PG&E and other utilities to install power hookups at residentia­l and commercial constructi­on sites no more than eight weeks after projects receive the necessary permits. Otherwise, utilities would be required to pay developers to compensate for the wait.

“We want to send a strong message that the lights need to go on fast,” Wiener said at a news conference announcing the bill. “And no more delays by PG&E.”

Power connection­s historical­ly have taken about six to eight weeks. In recent years, however, it's been taking much longer, as many as 28 weeks, to get power, said the Constructi­on Employers Associatio­n, one of the labor unions behind the new bill. PG&E says it's average wait time for multifamil­y projects is just over eight weeks but acknowledg­ed there have been delays.

In a written statement, the utility acknowledg­ed the “real-world impacts that delays have on our customers” and said it is working with the constructi­on industry on improving and streamlini­ng its process and “accelerati­ng timelines” for energizing new buildings.

But passage of Wiener's bill would leave it no choice but to increase customer's utility rates, PG&E said. Customers' bills soared this winter as natural gas prices skyrockete­d.

In an interview, Wiener said PG&E officials have blamed the delays on staffing shortages and the increased resources diverted

to upgrading the utility's aging equipment.

But Wiener was hardly convinced by that explanatio­n. Like other politician­s across the state, he has taken a hard line with PG&E since its electrical lines have sparked deadly wildfires and triggered power shutoffs over the past decade.

“You can't decide we're going to become a dominant corporate Goliath with a huge monopoly and then make excuses for why you can't provide service,” he said. “They need to figure it out. Period.”

Last month, 134 constructi­on-ready projects — compromisi­ng hundreds of new housing units and other types of developmen­t — had been waiting on PG&E power hookups for longer than eight weeks, according to state data compiled by Wiener's office. Of those, 95 had been delayed for over 12 weeks.

San Francisco-based Mission Housing was one of the developers left waiting on PG&E to provide power to recently completed accessory dwelling units for seniors in the city.

“There are high-quality, 100% affordable housing units for families and seniors sitting vacant right now because PG&E won't turn on the lights,” Sam Moss, Mission Housing's executive director, said at the news conference.

In some rural parts of the state, meanwhile, PG&E has effectivel­y paused new power hookups because of limits on transmissi­on capacity. The utility blamed the cannabis industry in Humboldt County for boosting electricit­y demand there and overloadin­g the local grid.

Corey Smith, executive director for the Housing Action Coalition, a prohousing group sponsoring the legislatio­n, Senate Bill 86, said the growing wait times are only the latest among the challenges slowing housing constructi­on in notoriousl­y bureaucrat­ic California.

Developers have long spent an inordinate amount of time planning how to secure the plethora of city approvals, constructi­on permits and financing agreements before getting shovels in the ground, Smith said. Any setback in that process can trigger further delays, driving up costs and jeopardizi­ng the financial viability of projects.

Housing advocates also cite high developmen­t fees, lengthy environmen­tal studies and local zoning rules restrictin­g where multifamil­y housing can go as barriers to building more homes. That's to say nothing of the increasing costs of land, labor, materials and taking out constructi­on loans, or the severe lack of funding to subsidize low-income housing.

Since 2016, lawmakers have signed nearly a hundred housing bills to help streamline parts of the local planning and permitting process. But backers say even more reforms like SB 86 are needed for California to meet its goal of adding roughly 2.5 million more homes for people of all incomes by 2030. That would mean building an average of about 300,000 more units each year. The state currently only produces about a third of that amount.

Smith said the sense of urgency is mounting to alleviate the “human cost” of not building enough housing in the state, where more than a quarter of renters spend over 50% of their income on housing costs and the homeless population has grown to over 170,000 people.

“All of the work and the effort we're doing is to try and find homes for people,” he said.

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