Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has made a habit of taking big swings on critical policy issues, laid out a proposal earlier this month for reforming the California Environmental Quality Act, aiming to make it easier to build major infrastructure projects.
But with California facing a deficit of millions of homes, and officials up and down the state stressing the need for more housing, advocates and developers are wondering why Newsom’s pitch failed to include ways to speed up much-needed residential development.
“This proposal does absolutely nothing for housing, zip zap zero,” Erik Schoennauer, a prolific San Jose land use consultant, told San José Spotlight about Newsom’s proposed changes to the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.
“Everyone in Sacramento claims housing production is important, yet the single most important thing to get housing production going, CEQA reform, they refuse to touch in any comprehensive or meaningful fashion,” Schoennauer said.
He attributes the lack of sweeping change in the state to special interest groups—construction labor unions and environmentalists who want to keep the law as is—while others said the reasons might not be so obvious.
A go-to playbook
CEQA was passed in 1970 in reaction to growing support for environmental protection and preservation across California, and was signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. It’s been used as the playbook for evaluating environmental impacts of all types of projects, large or small, including housing developments.
But in the decades since its inception, pro-housing groups say the law has become an unnecessary obstacle in urban areas, and that residents opposed to new development use CEQA to make loose claims that are aimed at killing or significantly shrinking projects.
“CEQA certainly plays a critical role in evaluating development, but too often it is used and abused to extort developers and stop development projects without any regard for the environment,” Eric Morley, a principal at Los Gatos-based real estate development firm The Morley Bros., told San José Spotlight. Newsom, in a February tweet, even called out such tactics as a problem that needs fixing.
Schoennauer said he supports keeping CEQA reviews in place for developments involving hazardous materials, industrial projects or building near sensitive habitats on the outskirts of cities.
But for urban projects like a multi-story apartment complex in the middle of a major city like San Jose, he said CEQA reviews and studies are “nonsensical” and at times extend development approvals for months to over a year, increasing costs and risk.
Schoennauer said growing metro areas in other states don’t require such stringent reviews.
“Are you telling me that apartment buildings are destroying Austin, destroying Boise, destroying Miami, because they don’t have lengthy, unnecessary environmental reviews?” Schoennauer said.
Even at the local level, construction unions have used CEQA lawsuits in attempts to force developers to strike favorable labor agreements.
Skewed CEQA lens
Joanna Gubman, executive director for environmentalism at YIMBY Action, a national organization that advocates for inclusive housing growth, said while labor unions have historically been a force opposing CEQA reform, they have recently been supporting other bills to streamline infill housing approvals.
Another concern for Gubman is the amount of influence wealthy homeowners, who often oppose dense housing projects near their neighborhoods, have on CEQA reform in Sacramento.
Gubman said she was ultimately let down by how Newsom’s proposal completely ignored housing.
“I find it bizarre and disappointing because I know that the governor understands the connection between our climate and the housing crisis,” Gubman told San José Spotlight.
Gubman said even as state agencies have acknowledged that technology like solar power and electric cars won’t be enough to address the climate crisis alone, these initiatives have been a main focus for leaders instead of housing because there is less opposition.
Newsom’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In a news release about his proposal, Newsom’s office said the package of bills and his executive order “complements actions the governor and the legislature have taken to streamline state laws to maximize housing production, with 20 CEQA reform bills signed into law in recent years.”
Gubman said California’s harmful legacies of environmental racism, redlining and past inaction on climate change were built up over decades, and it will take a commensurate effort to undo them.
“We again need to take a whole of government, and whole of society approach to promoting new land uses, infill housing and to use every lever that’s available to us, in every location, no matter how small the lever is, to correct this injustice. That’s what I want to see from the governor,” Gubman said.