Since it was enacted in 1970, California environmentalists have hailed the state’s most sweeping environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, as a bulwark against destruction of California’s natural resources and endangerment of its most vulnerable residents.
The law requires developers to involve the public in their building plans, and to minimize damage to the environment in accordance with public input and scientific study.But now, with Governor Gavin Newsom’s push to see 3.5 million homes built by 2025, CEQA may be in Sacramento’s crosshairs. Developers and trade unions have long complained that the law was written so broadly that neighborhood groups and certain unions have used it to start litigation that slows or stops necessary projects. Newsom’s goal, which would require a six-fold increase in current housing production over the next seven years, could lead to their complaints overriding environmental concerns.
…Alexander Harnden, a housing policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, agrees that CEQA has been occasionally abused by exclusionary neighborhood groups and city councils. But he argues that lengthy legal challenges under CEQA account for a small fraction of projects. “The rest of the projects are altered in appropriate ways and getting approved.”
Harnden says that streamlining housing development should include incentives for developers – such as eliminating parking requirements – in exchange for commitments to build a larger percentage of affordable units. He also advocates expanding rent-control measures and prohibiting landlords from refusing Section 8 vouchers, subsidize housing for low-income tenants. But he emphasizes that supply-side solutions like building houses at more than six times the current rate won’t fix everything. No matter how many millions of units go up in the next seven years, he says, “it won’t solve the increases in homelessness and rent gouging.” Nearly everyone in the debate agrees that there’s no single solution to the housing crisis. And they say taking on all of these aspects requires both compromise and political will.