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 pro-housing 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.