The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is an important tool for advancing environmental justice (EJ) and protecting the rights of communities disproportionately impacted by pollution and poverty in our state. While CEQA “streamlining” policies have been viewed as the best way to address our state’s housing shortage, such ideas are based upon misleading narratives and misinformation.
We must build affordable housing that is safe and healthy while ensuring that our state’s most vulnerable residents are not inadvertently exposed to toxic hazards and other dangers in their own homes. Modifying CEQA to expedite or weaken the environmental review process would severely limit our ability to identify significant negative health impacts, and would disproportionately burden low-income communities and communities of color.
In addition to advancing procedural justice by allowing impacted communities to weigh in on projects, CEQA can require that projects analyze potential displacement effects, growth-inducing impacts, and compatibility with local land use plans.
Policymakers that are committed to creating healthy communities and protecting civil rights should not be misled into watering down CEQA for the purposes of addressing our state’s housing and affordability crisis.
Myth #1: CEQA hurts low-income communities and people of color.
Truth: CEQA protects the basic rights of disadvantaged or EJ communities in California.
These rights include the right to clean air and water, the right to participate in local land use decisions, and the right to affordable housing and good schools free from pollution and other harms. A strong CEQA can protect highly impacted EJ communities from developments that produce environmental burdens⎼from refineries to warehouses to housing.
Myth #2: CEQA is inhibiting the creation of housing.
Truth: Development costs and the local planning process are more likely to determine the rate of housing production.
In 2018, a survey of forty-six cities and counties revealed that “high development costs, lack of financing, and site availability” were reported as the top biggest barriers developing affordable housing in CA. In addition, a 2017 UC Berkeley study of five Bay Area cities found that many cities already streamline CEQA reviews for housing developments⎼and that most projects do not involve a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR). In fact, the study observed that local planning provisions have a much greater impact on the pace of housing development.
Myth #3: CEQA must be streamlined in order to increase housing production in our state.
Truth: CEQA has already been modified or “streamlined” many of times over the years to expedite judicial review and create exemptions for projects such as housing. For example:
- SB 1925 (2002) exempts infill housing development that meets specific criteria for design or uses such as affordable housing.
- SB 375 (2008) provides streamlined CEQA review for infill mixed-use, residential, and transit priority projects (TPPs).
- SB 743 (2013) exempts TPPs that are consistent with a relevant specific plan and a related Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS).
- SB 226 (2011) limits reviews if environmental impacts were previously addressed in a planning decision. It also exempts solar installations on roofs and existing parking lots.
- SB 674 (2014) broadens the existing statutory exemption for infill residential housing by allowing projects to include more neighborhood-serving commercial uses.
For more information on CEQA and housing production, check out the following research publications:
- California State Legislature, Senate Committee on Judiciary and Senate Committee on Environmental Quality (2019). Just the Facts: An Evidence-Based Look at CEQA Streamlining and CEQA’s Role in Development.
- Association of Environmental Professionals (2019). CEQA and Housing Production: 2018 Survey of California Cities and Counties.
- O’Neill, M., Gualco-Nelson, G. and Biber, E. (2018). Getting it Right: Examining the Local Land Use Entitlement Process in California to Inform Policy and Process.
- The Rose Foundation and BAE Urban Economics (2016). CEQA in the 21st Century.
You can also download our CEQA & Housing Fact Sheet here.