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As California politicians complain about the lack of affordable housing, a new state study claims the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), as a Los Angeles Times report put it, “doesn’t block development from actually happening.” A working family looking for affordable housing in California should have more than a reasonable doubt.
The claim that CEQA does not block housing is based on the survey’s finding that 1 percent of development projects required detailed analyses under the law and less than 1 percent were sued. But as a corrected version of the Times report notes “no housing developments were examined as part of the study.” The report also acknowledged a study from the Holland & Knight law firm finding that more than twice as many CEQA lawsuits were filed over housing as over public services and infrastructure projects (33 percent versus 14 percent) in almost all of Southern California, and that projects involving nearly 14,000 housing units combined were challenged by CEQA lawsuits from 2013-15. A CEQA lawsuit also “successfully stopped a 200-bed homeless shelter.”
On the other hand, as the Orange County Register noted, the legislature gladly waives CEQA regulation for big projects such as the new stadium for the Sacramento Kings basketball team. In a ploy known as “greenmail,” union bosses exploit CEQA to “compel the use of union labor and higher union wages, by businesses to prevent competitors from moving in and by local governments and NIMBYs to extract additional facilities or design features from developers.” The mere threat of a CEQA lawsuit is enough to kill a project, but the new state survey does not address that issue or how many projects were not launched at all because of the costs CEQA’s draconian regulation imposes.
The young working family looking for housing should understand that, contrary to official claims, CEQA blocks development, lowers the supply of housing, and drives up costs. That family should also expect little if any change without deep reform of CEQA. In similar style, recent legislation aimed at making housing more affordable will likely make it more scarce and expensive.