CEQA and Housing

CEQA: California’s Living Environmental Law: CEQA’s Role in Housing, Environmental Justice & Climate Change

The Housing Workshop, a housing policy firm, released a new report in 2021 entitled “CEQA: California’s Living Environmental Law: CEQA’s Role in Housing, Environmental Justice & Climate Change.” The report, which was commissioned by the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, demonstrates that the California Environmental Quality Act is a critical tool for advancing environmental justice and combating climate change. The report further shows that, contrary to critic’s contentions, this 50-year-old law is not a significant barrier to the state’s housing production. An analysis of recent data shows that the number of CEQA lawsuits has remained consistently very low over the last two decades, despite a rapid growth in the state’s population in the same period. The report was commissioned by the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment.

The findings of the Housing Workshop’s report are consistent with earlier reports concluding that CEQA has not operated to restrict housing supply. For example, a 2019 report commissioned by the Association of Environmental Professionals surveyed numerous California cities and counties and found that CEQA was not a major factor in slowing housing development. Two studies by UC Berkeley reached a similar conclusion, finding that while local zoning practices impede housing construction, CEQA does not.

  • Read the full Housing Workshop report here (pdf)
  • Read a fact sheet summarizing the report’s key findings here (pdf).
  • Watch the March 11, 2022 Zoom briefing for California legislators and staff on the Housing Workshop report here. (video)
  • Find the master slide set from the March 11 briefing here. (pdf)

Key Findings

CEQA protects the environment, advances environmental justice, and combats climate change.

The CEQA process has caused developers and public agencies to modify high-impact development projects to address environmental injustice impacts, such as air and noise pollution threatening public health. CEQA is also playing a major role in combatting climate change by requiring local agencies and developers to disclose projects’ greenhouse gas emissions and reduce them to the extent feasible.

Both the number of CEQA lawsuits and the rate of CEQA litigation continue to be low.

Since 2002, CEQA lawsuits have averaged less than 200 per year, despite rapid population growth in California. The rate of litigation from 2013 to 2019 was only 2 percent – far lower than some press reports imply. CEQA lawsuits typically call attention to legitimate issues related to public health, the environment and/or government transparency.

The cost of CEQA compliance is relatively low.

Compliance costs range from 0.025% to 0.6% of total project costs, not high enough to seriously impede projects.

For over 50 years, CEQA has helped to protect some of the state’s most iconic places.

Examples include the Headwaters Forest, Mono Lake, the Santa Monica Mountains, and San Francisco Bay.

Many complex factors have contributed to California’s current housing crisis, but CEQA is not a significant factor or cause of that crisis.

Other complex factors such as restrictive local zoning laws, fluctuating interest rates, and rising land/materials/ labor costs are the major contributors to the housing crisis. While CEQA is not a major barrier to housing, the state legislature has nonetheless approved bills to streamline CEQA review for certain housing projects

CEQA streamlining tools have helped to advance housing projects.

In recent years, the state legislature has adopted new laws that streamline the CEQA process for qualified housing projects. Local agencies have increasingly
relied on these laws, and particularly SB 35, to expedite housing approvals – and this trend is expected to continue. Between 2018 and 2020, approximately 14,000 housing units have been approved using SB 35, of which 77% were affordable.

Before the legislature enacts further amendments to the law, it should assess how these streamlining bills play out.

Because environmental review is not required for projects authorized by SB 35, there may be no mitigation required for environmental impacts. Especially since CEQA is not the root cause of the housing crisis, lawmakers and policy leaders should carefully monitor this narrowing of CEQA’s application to housing development and evaluate how the current CEQA amendments play out before further weakening the law’s environmental review requirements. Residents depend on CEQA to ensure the health and safety of their communities.

California is a national leader in economic prosperity and sustainable development.

CEQA has not held the state back in these metrics over the past five decades. California saw the 7th fastest job growth in the nation between 2012 and 2019, including in the manufacturing sector, and ranked first in the nation in GDP, the value of all economic output, in 2019. The pace of infill housing construction compares favorably with other states. And California has five of the 20 most walkable cities in the nation, a key metric for sustainable development.