The California Environmental Quality Act is by far the most destructive of the causes that factor into California’s housing crisis. Its regulatory hurdles have sharply increased the cost of building, which has led to a severe shortage of homes that pushed prices to levels that many can’t afford. Even Gov. Jerry Brown says reforming CEQA is key to fixing the housing crisis.
But CEQA is truly the third rail of California politics. Lawmakers fear touching it in any meaningful way will kill their careers.
But when it suits them, they are perfectly willing to bend the rail. Last year the Legislature approved a CEQA exemption to streamline the $1.3 billion project to restore, renovate or replace the existing State Capitol Building Annex. Four years ago, apparently dreaming of comp tickets, they expedited construction of Golden 1 Center — literally walking distance down the street from the Capitol — for the owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
In 2009, the Legislature entirely exempted from CEQA a proposed NFL stadium in the City of Industry that was never built. Two years later, a proposal to build an NFL stadium in downtown Los Angeles was popular enough among for the Legislature to make sure any CEQA lawsuits against it were expedited and didn’t hold back construction.
Don’t be surprised if it happens again. Lawmakers are considering putting a proposal for a new Los Angeles Clippers arena in Inglewood on the fast track where it will have some protection from CEQA-based lawsuits. The Los Angeles Times said in late August that “under the proposal, any lawsuits against the arena filed under the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires developers to disclose and minimize a project’s impact on the environment, must aim to be wrapped up within nine months, a significantly shorter timeline than in typical cases.”
The Times reported on Sept. 1 that lawmakers had that day introduced legislation, Senate Bill 789, “to bypass a key state environmental law that would dramatically ease the construction of rail, bus and other transit projects connected to Los Angeles’ bid to host the Olympic Games in 2028.” These exemptions apply to the Clippers’ arena, as well.
While the group behind the Los Angeles Olympic bid told SB 789 sponsor Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena, that it doesn’t want to be a part of the legislation, the bill still shows the willingness in Sacramento to only grant CEQA exemptions for the well-connected.
It’s disappointing that some legislators have no problem skirting the rigors of CEQA for their preferred projects, yet eliminating bureaucracy to address one of the state’s most pressing problems – housing – is beyond them.
Brown has said that he’s never seen a CEQA exemption he didn’t like, but it’s time to get the Legislature on board for CEQA reform. Rather than granting accommodations to politically favored projects, how about CEQA exemptions for all? It would be like turning the key that starts the next housing boom.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.