CEQA Is a Scapegoat for California’s Housing Crisis

CEQA has been instrumental in work to defend sensitive habitat, like this desert wash south of Joshua Tree National Park; Image: Chris Clarke

By Delores Chan

The housing crisis in California is dire, and you might have seen articles from the NY Times, LA Times, or SF Chronicle that blame the California Environmental Quality Act, better known as CEQA. These articles have caught the attention of lawmakers around the state, some of whom believe the law must be reformed and weakened in order to allow more housing to be built. But is this actually true? In fact, there are a number of new bills this legislative cycle that are intended to weaken CEQA. The Rose Foundation and the Housing Workshop recently published a report detailing how CEQA lawsuits have affected housing development in California the past few years, and the results paint a different picture. Here are some common questions we hear at CNPS and what you should know about California’s environmental bill of rights. 

Does CEQA kill housing projects? 

CEQA is a public disclosure law, which requires projects to make known any negative effects on the environment. It allows the public to be informed about a project and its potential environmental and health impacts. Any person living in an area where a project is proposed has a legal right to know about these projects and comment on their effects in order to protect themselves and their community. 

When CEQA critics say that it kills housing, they are usually referencing the lawsuits people and organizations file when CEQA violations occur. However, in the Rose Foundation’s updated report, they found no evidence of any project being scrapped as a result of CEQA litigation. If a project is litigated, it will typically be paused until a decision is reached. When a judge rules that CEQA violations did in fact occur, the project must remedy them in order to continue. 

Does CEQA slow down housing developments?

The CEQA process can be lengthy, especially large-scale developments. For example, Centennial is a proposed master-planned city in the Antelope Valley that is expected to be built over decades. This project spans over 10,000 acres, with serious implications for the entire Tejon Ranch region. When a project has the potential to affect an entire habitat, “delays” for a CEQA public comment period and Environmental Impact Report are necessary to avoid irreparable and damaging impacts. However, California also has workarounds in place to ease delays. In 2017, California Senate Bill 35 passed into law to help streamline affordable housing projects. The Rose Foundation found that since the bill’s adoption, projects have been increasingly utilizing it in order to build much-needed affordable housing in the state. 

Is CEQA disproportionately impacting housing projects?

The Rose Foundation report looked at litigation from 2019-2021 and found that only 1.9% of all CEQA projects result in lawsuits, making it a total of 508 CEQA cases filed; and of those, only 23.8% of those challenged new housing units. In 2019 alone, less than 10% of permitted units in residential buildings were subject to CEQA litigation. These important numbers provide much-needed context when we discuss the proportion of housing projects affected by CEQA. The cases that reach the courts typically help address very real environmental and health consequences that can impact communities for generations. The public is the only entity capable of enforcing CEQA. No government agency typically intervenes in this capacity to protect marginalized communities or the voiceless environment when projects fail to comply with CEQA.  

Does CNPS sue housing projects? 

CNPS considers lawsuits for any projects that both violate CEQA and negatively impact native plants and habitat. CNPS has a Litigation Committee composed of expert volunteers and staff who review potential concerns and determine when to engage in a lawsuit. As an organization, our goal is to protect intact, biodiverse landscapes across the state by offering suggestions and strategies for developers and agencies to reduce or eliminate environmental harm. When CNPS does join litigation, we are concerned that project proponents are failing to address – or even ignoring – environmental impacts. For example, the CNPS San Diego Chapter joined the Center for Biological Diversity, Endangered Habitats League, Preserve Wild Santee, Sierra Club, and the California Chaparral Institute in suing a development project that failed to consider measures to reduce wildlife threats, wildfire risks, greenhouse gas emissions, and other environmental issues, and would have resulted in the destruction of over 1,000 acres of sensitive habitat. Negotiations for the lawsuit ultimately resulted in state purchase of land, successfully setting it aside for conservation of countless threatened and endangered species. 

Do we have to choose between housing and sensitive habitats?

No. At CNPS, we believe that careful environmental planning and review can set development projects up for success. CEQA helps to provide the information we need to make sound decisions about where and how we build. Weakening CEQA would do little to make the state’s affordable housing demands a reality, and getting rid of it would harm our environment and vulnerable communities across the state. Instead, we encourage people who care about both the environment and the housing crisis to talk with their decision-makers about high construction costs, income inequality, and restrictive zoning laws. 

As we approach a warmer world with more fragmented habitats and catastrophic events, we need laws like CEQA to protect both communities and natural habitats. In fact, the conservation of natural places like wetlands and woodlands help buffer communities from the growing impacts of climate change, like flooding and extreme heat. It is possible to live in a state with housing, clean energy, and intact wild spaces; but that is only a reality if CEQA remains strong. 

Delores ChanDelores Chan is the CNPS Natalie Hopkins Conservation Intern.

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