Listen to the podcast of this discussion.
An affordable housing project for seniors in San Francisco's Mission District was just taken to court. Affordable housing for low-income residents in Orange County was waylaid for several months. And a homeless shelter for teenagers originally planned for San Francisco's Marina District had to move elsewhere.
All these projects – serving the elderly, the poor, the homeless– ended up in court because they were seen as potential environmental threats. They're just a few examples of how the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, is used as a way to block housing and other types of development.
But CEQA’s defenders say the landmark law, passed in 1970, has given California cleaner air, less congestion and sewage, and made it a more desirable place to live.
And CEQA is not something for lawyers and city planners -- anyone, even just one person, can file a CEQA-specific lawsuit against development they disagree with.
As we've discussed in Parts 1, 2 and 3 of our "California's Crazy Housing Market," housing is expensive to build, buy and rent. Many people working in housing and land development say CEQA is a big reason behind that. And more state government officials are publicly saying that too (to get the Golden 1 Arena built in Downtown Sacramento, our now-Mayor Darrell Steinberg passed a bill to speed up the CEQA review process while he was leader of the state Senate).
CEQA affects anything and everything built in this state. It determines where housing is built (or not built) and it affects how much you pay in rent or the sales price. Home developers say that, depending where you are in the California, the fees, codes and CEQA-specific reviews mean they pay at least $50,000 before even putting a shovel in the ground.
So do we love CEQA for keeping California from being congested and over-built? Do we hate it because it prevents two-thirds of us from being able to afford a home here? Do we champion it as it is because it gives people the power to block development they want? Or should we tell state government to dust CEQA off and reform it -- or even scrap it?
* Tom Buford, senior planner with the City of Sacramento
* Chris Norem, director of government and legislative affairs at the North State Building Industry Association
* Howard Penn, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League
* Tina Thomas, founder of the Thomas Law Group in Sacramento and original co-author of the environmental-law textbook "Guide to the California Environmental Quality Act"