CEQA isn’t stopping housing, it’s protecting health

A contractor moves roofing material on a home under construction in San Ramon.
A contractor moves roofing material on a home under construction in San Ramon. Bloomberg

California needs affordable housing. But legislators must follow the data, not anecdotal evidence from monied interests, to find a legislative fix that will encourage development consistent with California’s priorities.

Communities throughout the state, particularly poor and minority neighborhoods, need permanent housing without risking health or increasing carbon emissions.

Allen Hernandez CCAEJ

Some profit-focused developers point a finger at the California Environmental Quality Act as a key obstacle to building more housing. The facts tell a different story. Today’s streamlined CEQA protects public health and natural resources while giving voice to disadvantaged communities.

Multiple recent studies show that CEQA is not a significant barrier to development. Since its adoption in 1970, CEQA has been updated regularly. Senate Bill 226 in 2011 simplified the review of urban infill projects and affordable housing near public transit.

For example, a report found that only 14 projects in San Francisco were required to prepare environmental impact reports from 2013 to 2015. In that same period, more than 13,000 projects were exempt from CEQA review because they followed zoning and land use plans.

Still, groups such as the Building Industry Association complain about CEQA because it requires them to secure additional review and public input when developers propose projects that are inconsistent with established land use plans, or that might add significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

But given our state’s rapidly disappearing agricultural land and ambitious plans to address climate change, isn’t that as it should be?

Communities leverage CEQA to improve projects that would pollute air and water. For example, CEQA is playing a part in ongoing environmental justice concerns in Ventura County involving oil drilling-related air pollution and pesticide exposure. Under a 2013 CEQA lawsuit settlement, the state attorney general secured air filtration systems, air quality monitoring and landscaping to minimize exposure to diesel particulates for residents of Mira Loma Village. And environmental justice and conservation activists are currently using the CEQA process to protect air quality around homes and schools in Fontana, near the planned expansion of the Fontana Southwest logistics center.

Our state consistently ranks near the top nationally in economic prosperity and sustainable development. These achievements are because of CEQA, not despite it. Weakening CEQA would hit economically disadvantaged Californians hardest.

And so-called reforms to this landmark law do not guarantee more affordable housing. The 2016 proposal put forth by the governor, for example, offered exemptions to high-priced housing units, favoring developers while clearing the way for projects that would have increased air pollution and encouraged sprawl.

There is a disturbing trend in national politics to substitute falsehoods for facts. We can’t let that happen with the laws that protect our natural resources, public health and economy. CEQA keeps the Golden State clean and green by promoting transparency and public accountability.

Allen Hernandez is executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in Riverside. He can be contacted at