The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is an important tool to advance environmental justice (EJ) and protect the rights of communities disproportionately impacted by pollution and poverty in our state. While certain private interests have raised CEQA “streamlining” policies as the best way to address our state’s housing shortage, such proposals are based upon misleading narratives and misinformation.
We need 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 health and safety impacts, and would disproportionately burden low-income communities and communities of color.
Policymakers who are committed to achieving 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.
What are the right solutions for low-income communities of color?
While the CA Legislature must seek to solve the housing crisis for all Californians, it must prioritize the needs of disadvantaged communities and communities of color that have experienced a legacy of discriminatory land use and housing practices, including displacement. This means working closely with impacted residents and community-based organizations to advance the following solutions:
- Expanding affordable housing opportunities, prioritizing housing that is affordable for extremely low and very low income residents, and investing in infrastructure and services that can facilitate housing development in under-resourced communities.
- Requiring and encouraging stronger tenant protections, such as by eliminating restrictions on local rent control laws and guaranteeing a right to counsel in housing court.
- Establishing strong anti-displacement and local hire requirements for new development and as a condition for receiving state funding.
- Enforcing local governments’ housing plans and fair housing requirements so that communities can access the affordable housing they need.
Environmental justice means creating healthy and affordable housing for everyone, especially for communities with fewer resources and more barriers. To do this, we must also acknowledge the role that local planning decisions play in the housing crisis, which disproportionately concentrate toxic and polluting land uses in disadvantaged or EJ communities, leading to worsening housing quality, stability, and choice in these neighborhoods.
The Facts on CEQA
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. Some exemptions include:
- 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.
CEQA Case Studies
Case Study: Richmond
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.
Case Study: South Fresno
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 of 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.