CEQA and Housing

In 2021 and 2023, the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment commissioned The Housing Workshop, a housing policy firm, to conduct empirical studies analyzing the effect of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) on housing, communities, public health and conservation in California. As Tim Little, Executive Director of the Rose Foundation explained, “Each time we have heard complaints about CEQA in the popular press, we decided to see whether there was any basis in fact. When one examines the data, it turns out that the arguments for weakening CEQA simply do not hold up.” Both the 2021 and 2023 reports conclude that CEQA does not serve as a major obstacle to housing development in California. Further, the evidence shows that CEQA promotes conservation, environmental justice, and climate resilience.

2023 Report
CEQA by the Numbers: Myths & Facts

The Housing Workshop released a new report in May 2023 entitled “CEQA by the Numbers: Myths & Facts.” The report provides empirical evidence proving that CEQA is not a major factor deterring the development of housing in California. The Housing Workshop found that lawsuits under CEQA affect only a small fraction of projects in the state, and that most are unrelated to housing. The report further demonstrates that CEQA is a critical tool for combatting climate change, advancing environmental justice, promoting conservation, and mitigating the public health impacts of polluting projects proposed near homes and schools.

  • Read the full 2023 Housing Workshop report here (pdf).

The report was commissioned by the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment. It is an update of the Rose Foundation’s 2021 report on CEQA, and focusses primarily on CEQA litigation filed in 2019-2021.

Key Findings

The number of lawsuits filed under CEQA continues to be low.

Lawsuits average only 192 per year since 2002. This number has remained relatively constant over the last two decades, despite rapid (13.2 percent) population growth in the state.  

The rate of litigation for challenges to projects alleging noncompliance with CEQA is also very low.

The rate of litigation from 2013 to 2021 was only 1.9 percent — far lower than some press reports imply. Further, the rate of CEQA litigation has dropped since the publication of the last Rose Foundation report in 2021.

Less than one quarter of the CEQA cases filed in 2019-2021 challenged housing projects.

The proportion of cases challenging new housing units in this period was far less than stated by CEQA critics. Further, for 2019 (the report’s snapshot year for this analysis), the number of units subject to legal challenge equated to less than 10% of the state’s housing unit production that year — refuting some critics’ assertions that petitioners challenge nearly half of the state’s annual housing production.

The vast majority of housing units challenged in CEQA lawsuits in 2019-2021 were not located in urban infill areas, but on undeveloped land in remote areas.

CEQA’s policies discouraging urban sprawl are consistent with other California laws aimed at preserving valuable farmland, forests and habitat and reducing emissions of climate-harming greenhouse gasses.

Before the legislature enacts further streamlining amendments, it should evaluate the effectiveness of recent measures and whether they have achieved their goals.

The state legislature has continued to adopt CEQA streamlining measures for qualifying housing projects. When the legislature eliminates environmental review requirements through streamlining provisions, there may be no mitigation for public health impacts or other harm, and no opportunity for public input. Lawmakers and policy leaders should carefully monitor existing CEQA streamlining measures before further weakening the law’s environmental protections and evaluate the measures’ effectiveness in increasing housing production (and achieving other policy goals).

CEQA continues to protect California’s scenic landscapes and historic resources.

For example, since the 2021 Report, successful CEQA challenges forced decisionmakers to disclose the impacts of two large developments on water quality in Lake Tahoe, an international treasure. The law also required the state to analyze alternatives to a controversial plan to alter the historic State Capitol Complex, a project that would have significantly impacted the iconic West Lawn.

CEQA advances environmental justice throughout California.

CEQA continues to be the principal tool that vulnerable communities use to protect residents from the public health impacts of polluting projects proposed near homes and schools. CEQA litigation filed in 2019-2021 has forced developers and public agencies to modify warehouse logistics centers, oil and gas drilling activities, and other massive industrial projects to address air and water pollution, increased noise, and traffic safety.

CEQA has been instrumental in fighting climate change and reducing wildfire risks.

Several lawsuits filed in 2019-2021 successfully challenged large, market-rate developments in remote, high fire-severity areas. Courts sent decision-makers back to the drawing board to ensure that these projects reduced their emissions of greenhouse gasses and mitigated impacts on sensitive plant species and wildlife habitat. Settlements in CEQA cases have also resulted in developer commitments to adopt energy- and water-efficiency measures.

A wide variety of groups and organizations – from public agencies to businesses and tribes – rely on CEQA and will enforce the law in court.

While most cases filed in 2019-2021 were brought by environmental organizations and community groups, many other interests have brought court actions to enforce the law. These interests include environmental justice organizations, historic preservation groups, tribes, business interests, and a large number of public agencies. Contrary to reports in the press, labor unions filed very few CEQA cases in 2019-2021 — only 13.

2021 Report

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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