March 16, 2023
Little Hoover Commission
925 L Street, Suite 805
Sacramento, CA 95814
Re: Hearing on the Effects of the California Environmental Quality Act
On behalf of the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) and undersigned organizations, we would like to provide the following comments to the Little Hoover Commission regarding the importance of California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. CEJA is a statewide, community-led alliance that unites the powerful local organizing of our ten member organizations to create comprehensive changes at a statewide level. Together, we are growing the movement for environmental health and climate justice, with a membership that includes 35,000 Asian American and Pacific Islander, Latinx, and African American residents in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles, Central Coast, Inland Valley/Empire, Eastern Coachella Valley, and the San Diego/Tijuana areas.
The California Environmental Quality Act is a state law enacted in 1970 to avoid or reduce damages to the environment by requiring projects subject to CEQA to disclose and find ways to mitigate their environmental impacts. Many of CEJA’s organizations rely on CEQA to uphold the rights of environmental justice (EJ) communities to clean air, water, and soil free from pollution and toxic contamination. A robust CEQA is particularly vital for EJ communities who rely on the law to participate in local planning decisions and safeguard the environmental well-being of their neighborhoods. Studies demonstrate that environmental pollution and other health hazards disproportionately affect low-income residents and people of color in the places where they live, work, play, pray, and attend school. In fact, CalEPA found that the top 10% most environmentally burdened communities in the state are 90% people of color. These frontline communities frequently lack the necessary resources and opportunities to fight against environmental harms and often have no say in critical decisions that affect their environmental health. Further, given the historic disenfranchisement of EJ communities, laws such as CEQA serve as an avenue to address and redress legacies of environmental degradation and harm.
In recent years, members of the state Legislature and the current administration have also supported policies to “streamline” or significantly reduce CEQA’s impact, including bills that aim to exempt certain types of projects from the law or reduce litigation timelines and limit judicial remedies. Unfortunately, these policies often further harm low-income neighborhoods and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOCs) and cause further harm to the environment. This dynamic is also complicated by the fact that low-income and BIPOC communities often have fewer resources and limited access to lawyers to safeguard their health and their rights compared to well-resourced developers and other privileged special interest groups, as well as public agencies which often seek to push through projects that harm EJ communities.
CEJA’s member organizations view CEQA as a critical tool for advancing environmental justice and protecting community health. The law provides an essential means for low-income and politically marginalized communities to have a voice in local land use decisions, which can significantly impact their environmental health and quality of life. By establishing the rights of environmental justice communities to protections that support clean air, water, and soil and providing opportunities for the input of communities to be meaningfully considered in planning processes, CEQA plays a vital role in safeguarding the health and well-being of overburdened populations and vulnerable communities across the state.
CEQA is critical to support the development of safe, quality housing that meets our state’s housing needs and policy goals.
CEQA protects the rights of communities disproportionately impacted by pollution and poverty through its robust environmental review processes. The law is one of the few tools that overburdened EJ communities can use to address the environmental and human impacts of development including housing that’s being proposed on top of contaminated land or next to sources of pollution. Such sources include, but are not limited to, light and heavy industrial facilities, oil and gas operations, high-traffic roads and freeways, recycling and manufacturing facilities, and warehouses with heavy truck traffic. Thoughtful, well-researched land use planning is important to ensure use compatibility and guard against unintended negative consequences. Contrary to what some believe, developers do build on toxic land and near hazardous sites, making it imperative to safeguard and build upon CEQA’s role in protecting public health, and not undermine it.
Exempting projects from CEQA exposes vulnerable people to environmental harm without adequate public participation, impact analysis, disclosure, mitigation, and identification of alternative solutions. We must ensure that sensitive receptors such as housing, schools, daycare centers, and senior centers must be developed on sites that are clean and suitable for such development. Unfortunately, historic and present-day discrimination in local planning decisions perpetuate inappropriate land use patterns that have led to higher concentrations of toxic and polluting land uses near the homes, schools, and daycare centers that serve low-income communities and communities of color., In addition, state agencies and local entities responsible for cleaning up and remediating toxic sites have a well-documented history of failing to fulfill their duty to protect communities from hazardous waste.
There have been many cases in which CEQA has been instrumental to preventing public health harms and other detrimental impacts to the environment. For instance, in 2007, the city of Richmond proposed a plan to develop single-family and multi-family homes for low-income elderly residents. During public scoping meetings for the draft Miraflores Senior Housing plan, several issues came to light: poor air quality from a nearby freeway, possible lead contamination in the soil and groundwater, and a lack of cultural and historic preservation strategies. As a result, the project’s Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) utilized feedback from various state and local agencies, community-based organizations, elected officials, and local residents to identify important improvements to the plan. The Final EIR added strategies to mitigate the poor air quality, water quality, and noise impacts to less-than-significant levels. It also included plans to preserve the historic character of buildings, added key sustainability strategies, and improved the process for site clean up.
Instead of being a barrier to development, CEQA provided a process for engaging the public in meaningful and productive ways. Through the EIR, serious environmental and health-related issues were successfully identified early on, leading to the creation of crucial remediations and solutions such as the replacement of contaminated soil and groundwater. In sum, CEQA was instrumental in ensuring that the Miraflores affordable housing development would not lead to negative impacts on vulnerable elderly residents or the city. After completing the Final EIR, the city was able to issue permits to develop 80 affordable housing units for low-income seniors.
CEQA processes can lead to greater community benefits that further state housing goals.
In addition to identifying project-specific remedies, CEQA’s environmental review process can provide community members with opportunities to improve projects by incorporating community-serving benefits and anti-displacement provisions. The law’s inclusive public comment process is important to ensure that developments consider the range of needs and resources that local communities need to thrive and succeed.
In 2021, the CEQA process gave voice to a community’s concerns about Aggie Square, a significant campus and innovation center planned for Sacramento. After extensive efforts to resolve the matter without using litigation, stakeholders significantly improved the project to benefit all parties through a CEQA litigation process. The City of Sacramento approved a UC Davis extension project to bring substantial housing construction and economic investment to Sacramento. A community coalition, Sacramento Investment Without Displacement (SIWD), sued the city over concerns that the project would cause gentrification and would displace existing residents. Through stakeholder and community meetings, residents spoke out and spurred the creation of a Community Benefits Partnership Agreement. This agreement provides money to build affordable housing and infrastructure and stabilize housing costs. It guarantees that residents get priority for entry-level and higher-wage jobs this project will create. The agreement also includes better transportation options, youth education programs, and more. The City of Sacramento will gain thousands of new, good-paying jobs and a significant boost to its housing stock.
CEQA provides under-resourced community members with important project notification and public processes, giving them a voice in the local land use decisions that impact their lives.
Preserving equitable access to a public process is essential to addressing our country’s history of discrimination in land use planning, including redlining policies, which have put low-income and BIPOC residents at a significant disadvantage when accessing healthy homes and communities. By recognizing the impact of past discriminatory practices and actively working to rectify them, we can ensure that all community members are given an equal opportunity to participate in local land use decisions and create safe and healthy communities for all.
Unfortunately, the reality is that EJ communities often only know about projects once they are approved, if at all, as many of them fly under the radar. Low-income and BIPOC communities require more time, not less time, to participate in a public process or engage in litigation to reduce a project’s potential harm. By skipping CEQA’s disclosure and environmental review processes, agencies take away the public’s right to learn about the environmental and health impacts of developing on toxic land and limit the ability to ensure maximum cleanup and protective health measures taken. Without public accountability and proper cleanup, building housing on contaminated sites or in inappropriate and polluted areas will often result in irreversible health impacts on the people and families living in these developments for decades.
Furthermore, while government data and research are important to promote good planning and ensure well-thought out projects, community members can also provide invaluable insight and data that local governments may overlook or not have access to. The following example is a case in point: in 2017, the city of Fresno approved a 2.1 million square foot industrial park next to homes and a local elementary school with no public notice to residents. After performing a cursory environmental review, the city stated that the project would not produce significant impacts. In truth, the project stood to dramatically impact resident health and housing quality in one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the state, generating more than 6,200 truck and car trips per day on roads shared by homes. Local residents were already suffering the impacts of two other mega warehouses in the area that produced thousands of truck trips each day.
In response, residents came together to hold the city of Fresno accountable for not studying and mitigating the new industrial park’s impacts under CEQA, and for not providing adequate notice and a scoping meeting according to the law. Ultimately, the city, at the developer’s request, rescinded the project’s permits in recognition that it had not studied or mitigated the projects’ impacts on South Fresno neighborhoods. In the end, South Fresno residents were successful in using CEQA to protect their health and rights, and gained new knowledge to safeguard their health and housing when future developments are proposed.
CEQA is essential for ensuring that low-income and EJ communities are informed and have a voice in local planning decisions, as the local land use process often fails to provide adequate opportunities for these communities to express their opinions. Furthermore, the State Planning and Zoning Law sets out only basic public process requirements, which can result in historical patterns of segregation being perpetuated through current land use decisions and a lack of notification for impacted EJ community members regarding individual development projects.
Public agencies’ failure to conduct meaningful community engagement can be exacerbated by the makeup of planning personnel themselves. Land use planning is a profession that has historically been dominated by white men. In a state that is 63 percent people of color, only 27 percent of planners are people of color (as of 2016). As a result, most planners do not come from or have a deep understanding of the issues in EJ communities, which can make community engagement strained or, at worst, ineffective.
Blaming CEQA for the housing crisis relies on inaccurate information and a mischaracterization of the crisis.
Another popular “false solution” for resolving the housing crisis is to exempt developments from environmental review and to limit the public’s access to judicial remedies under the California Environmental Quality Act. Such actions continue to undermine environmental justice principles and limit low-income communities’ ability to protect themselves against harmful development projects. There is a dangerously misleading narrative that CEQA is a major obstacle contributing to California’s housing crisis, which presents a false choice between affordable housing and promoting a healthy and non-toxic environment for everyone. This narrative distracts the public and lawmakers from addressing the real barriers to housing, especially affordable housing. The housing crisis exists as a result of several factors, including high building costs, non-CEQA related neighborhood opposition, and lack of available sites. Additionally, lack of affordable housing financing and loss of redevelopment agencies are also key constraints to affordable housing production. Further, and importantly, this CEQA-blaming narrative fails to accurately describe the housing crisis, which is a crisis which disproportionately and severely impacts low-income people of color and which is characterized by inadequate development of affordable housing for low-income households, as well as inadequate protections for tenants impacted by sky-rocketing rents, eviction, and dilapidated and unsafe housing conditions.
The weight of the available evidence demonstrates that CEQA is not a major barrier to development, and instead helps to ensure that affordable housing does not compromise public health and safety. Many housing projects are already exempt from environmental review all together through using the infill exemption as well as tiering from specific or community plans.
Current data and research substantiates these facts. 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 to 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.
As an alliance of community-based non-profit organizations that advocate for the health and well-being of low-income communities and communities of color, we share the collective sense of urgency around California’s lack of affordable housing. Nevertheless, we are dismayed to see developers, elected officials, and polluters exploiting the current crisis to advance a cynical agenda to weaken California’s environmental laws, including CEQA.
CEQA has already been modified or “streamlined” many times over the years to expedite judicial review and create exemptions for development projects.
The following is a partial list of existing CEQA exemptions, including exemptions for various types of housing developments:
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) exempted 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.
Public Resources Code section 21159 was amended in 2010 to allow for expedited judicial review when adopting AB 32 performance standards.
SB 674 (2014) broadened the existing statutory exemption for infill residential housing by allowing projects to include more neighborhood-serving commercial uses.
SB 35 (2017) streamlines the approval process for certain housing projects by reducing local regulatory barriers.
AB 2011 (2022) streamlines the environmental review process for qualifying infill projects in California.
SB 6 (2022) expedites housing construction by creating a streamlined approval process for qualifying affordable housing projects.
SB 540 (2017) provides a new voluntary process for the preparation and certification of environmental impact reports for qualifying “sustainable communities” plans.
Recent studies also substantiate the fact that streamlining CEQA policies have not led to the creation of substantially more housing, especially more affordable housing, that meets the needs of our communities. However, streamlining can and will continue to weaken one of the few legal protections that disenfranchised communities can use to win environmental equality, protect their well-being, and preserve their right to live in their neighborhoods.
In sum, the state of California must work to 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 disproportionately burden low-income communities and communities of color. Policymakers committed to achieving healthy communities and protecting civil rights should not be misled into watering down CEQA to address our state’s housing and affordability crisis.
We would like to offer some recommendations to address the issue at hand. Firstly, we urge policymakers to prioritize the protection and enforcement of CEQA as a critical tool for promoting environmental justice and safeguarding the health and well-being of all Californians. It is crucial that CEQA is not watered down or weakened in any way, and that its provisions are fully implemented and enforced. Secondly, from our direct work with low-income, BIPOC, and renter households which are most impacted by the housing crisis, we strongly believe that streamlining CEQA is not the answer to addressing California’s housing and affordability crisis. Instead, we – including the Legislature and Governor – should quickly advance comprehensive solutions that take into account the needs and concerns of all communities, particularly low-income communities of color who are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation and lack of affordable housing. We recommend that policymakers consult our Environmental and Housing Justice Platform, which has been endorsed by numerous EJ, environmental, housing, and social justice organizations, for key our recommendations for specific policies that we urge the state to adopt towards creating safe, healthy, and affordable housing in California while ensuring that communities have a voice in local land use and housing decisions.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide written testimony. We look forward to future collaboration.
Green Zones Program Manager
California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA)
Senior Staff Attorney
Communities for a Better Environment (CBE)
Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment (CRPE)
Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability (LCJA)
Land Use and Health Program Manager
Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA)