CEQA Defense Rings Hollow

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

California environmentalists can surely do better to defend the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) than they did in a recent edition of CALmatters.  The piece, “Don’t blame environmental law for California’s housing crisis”, wasn’t convincing at all.

First, we’ve already heard plenty from the state’s environmental activists how without CEQA environmental protection in California wouldn’t happen.  They miss the point: the fight is over what CEQA prescribes for the housing being proposed for the neighborhood.

An environmental impact report (EIR) – required by CEQA and typically several hundred pages long – says a housing project’s aesthetic, agricultural, biological, cultural, geological, physical design, public-service, transportation and water-use impacts, among other things, must be examined before it can be approved.  That’s horses–t. The EIR then specifies what mitigation the project needs to accomplish along the way. More horses–t.

Secondly, CEQA is far from being the land-use and housing liberator of poor people the author claims it is.  On the contrary, CEQA in many cases is why tens of thousands of low-income Californians are today waiting for a chance to rent or own an affordable home.  Indeed, CEQA is an oppressor. It’s CEQA that becomes the one-and-only organizing mechanism for NIMBYs to oppose a low-income housing project proposed for the neighborhood – shooing poor people from the area.  Under CEQA, all NIMBYs need is $175 and a nearby municipal court to halt a multi-million-dollar housing development. In those instances, poor people lose.

But, the author insists CEQA protects poor people from dirty air and dirty water, and this one-of-a-kind law “gives people of color a seat at the table.”  This, it’s said, empowers the table-bound group to become skeptics – to turn away housing to be built on or near the “toxic waste dumps, oil wells, refineries and chemical facilities” that public agencies have allowed to proliferate over time.

[CEQA] is a critical tool that protects housing stability, public health and the environment in low-income communities of color, which bear the brunt of the impacts of polluting land uses.  The unfair concentration of polluting land uses in low-income communities contributes to a toxic soup of air, water and soil contamination that manifests in disproportionately shorter life spans for residents.

In fact, poor people just want a decent, safe and affordable place to live.  They don’t need a sweeping environmental law for that. CEQA – if nothing else – guarantees that poor people must wait for housing that may never come.

Thirdly – and like today’s politics have taught us – if someone is losing the argument, which advocates of the law clearly are, they must act to destroy their opponents.  Accordingly, the piece sets out to question the motives of housing providers statewide who complain about the law. It suggests housing developers unhappy with CEQA are inherently anti-environment and racist.

The opinion piece says:

The environmental law is one of our most potent tools for fighting environmental racism.  Pitting environmental protections against economic opportunity and racial justice creates a false choice. To imply that disadvantaged communities can only have one or the other is patronizing and unfair.

Legislators should look behind the rhetoric at who is funding the groups seeking to weaken this law. They’ll find the most vocal individuals leading the charge have ties to polluters and real estate developers. They, not disadvantaged communities, will benefit if our state representatives weaken our environmental laws.

I’m not even sure what “environmental racism” means but it sounds bad and I don’t think it’s meant to flatter California’s housing producers.  Nor, do I understand the accusation about pitting environmental protections (we’ve seen what those are) against economic opportunity and racial justice (huh?), but the implications of that “observation” are sure clear.  Equally clear is the author’s admonition that funding behind the opposition should be investigated.

Lastly, and predictably, the piece recommends that as an alternative to reforming CEQA, legislators should dust off some policies of the past, regardless of their relative success or political prospects, and put them to work.  Ignoring CEQA’s influence on development, the author identifies what she believes are the “true causes of our state’s serious housing disparities.” She proposes:

  • Eliminating unwarranted restrictions on local rent control laws;
  • Providing legal representation to low-income tenants in eviction proceedings; and
  • Addressing barriers to housing within rural communities.

It’s to be expected that environmental activists would without batting an eye deny that CEQA is a housing barrier or that it’s time the law – nearly 50 years after it was enacted – should get a tweak or two.  Environmentalists haven’t budged on reform since 1970 and given the leftward tilt in the Legislature they aren’t likely to change anytime soon. It’s no accident that CEQA has become the “third rail” in California politics.

I’m afraid that despite lame defenses of CEQA, like the one outlined above, the law in its current form will be with us for awhile.  And, that’s bad news for California’s poor and people of color looking for an affordable place to live.

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