Commentary: CEQA Abuse Is a Big Problem for California Housing

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Sacramento, CA – It is a seminal, perhaps signature, environmental law, meant to protect the environment and compel disclosure of environmental impacts from projects—but, as many people recognize, CEQA has routinely been used and often misused to prevent, stop or delay housing projects.

In his latest op-ed, columnist Dan Walters writes, “Anti-housing NIMBYs in affluent communities misuse it to stymie high-density, multi-family projects, arguing that their neighborhoods’ bucolic ambience would be altered. And construction unions misuse it to extract wage concessions from developers.”

He noted, “It’s a long-running civic scandal and a major factor in California’s chronic inability to reduce its severe housing shortage” and Walters importantly adds that neither Governor Brown nor Governor Newsom “has been willing to take on the task, which would mean confronting environmental groups and unions, two of the Democratic Party’s major allies.”

As an environmentalist both concerned with maintaining agricultural land and concerned about climate change, I would argue that we need to figure out a way to keep the clear and obvious benefits of CEQA while ending the abuse.

Walters writes: “CEQA misuse continues and the courts have become venues for battles over its application.”

Walters highlights a pair of court actions in the Bay Area, “one expanding the use of CEQA by those who oppose housing projects and another that restricts its use – underscore the law’s chaotic role.”

For instance, “one panel of the First District Court of Appeal issued a preliminary ruling that could open a new avenue for using CEQA to halt projects. It declares that a University of California student housing development in Berkeley violates the law because UC didn’t consider the impact of having more people – 1,100 students – in the neighborhood, citing the potential of late-night parties and other gatherings that could worsen a ‘persistent problem with student-generated noise.’”

The court basically ruled that more people is an environmental impact.  Walters calls it “a novel theory that could hand anti-housing groups everywhere a potent weapon.”

UC Davis law professor Chris Elmendorf tweeted: “The court’s reasoning is devastating ammunition for racist white homeowners who would leverage CEQA to keep poor people and minorities out of their neighborhoods.”

He continued, saying “using the court’s statistical-associations logic, white homeowners could argue that CEQA requires affordable housing developers to analyze and mitigate putative ‘gun violence impacts’ from any lower-income housing project in an affluent neighborhood. The homeowners would point to statistics showing that poor people, and African Americans and Hispanics, are statistically more likely than affluent people and whites to be victims of gun violence.”

The other decision cited by Walters came down a couple of days later.

A different panel from the same court rejected efforts by a group attempting to stop a 130-unit project in Livermore.

AG Rob Bonta intervened in the case, supporting the city’s approval of the project.  Bonta noted that this is an affordable housing project, “among the most acutely needed types of projects in California, given the State’s serious housing shortage.”

Bonta wrote: “Timing is a critical issue for affordable-housing projects, which often rely, as is the case here, on subsidies, tax credits, bond funding, or other time-sensitive financing sources.”

With respect to CEQA, Bonta makes the critical point: “While CEQA unquestionably serves important purposes, the Legislature has recognized that CEQA litigation also poses a risk of unduly delaying or blocking valuable projects, and accordingly has enacted a variety of provisions designed to ensure expedited judicial review of CEQA claims.”

Perhaps more importantly he noted, “Six months ago, the trial court determined the appellant’s CEQA claims to be ‘almost utterly without merit,’ yet this litigation has already put the Project’s financing, and potentially its entire viability, at risk.”

This underscores the problem in a nutshell, where even in a case where multiple courts have ruled there is no merit to the CEQA lawsuit, the project was delayed, funding imperiled, and the costs multiplied.

Bonta added, “That result is especially unwarranted in this case because the City of Livermore carefully followed a planning process that comports with both the letter and spirit of state law, which encourage a comprehensive environmental review at the land use planning stage to limit or avoid unnecessary or repetitious analysis at the project level.”

In other words, Livermore followed the law.  It was an affordable housing project and yet we still have delays, funding placed at risk, housing imperiled and no real recourse for anyone involved.

As Walters notes, following this decision, Bonta tweeted, “CA’s housing crisis is dire. We won’t stand by and let people misuse our laws to avoid being part of the solution.”

The problem is, without actual consequences, while Bonta might fight delays in the court, ultimately the NIMBYs win every time they force delays, put funding at risk, and raise the cost to do business.

As Walters concludes: “The outcomes of both cases underscore the need for a fundamental CEQA overhaul to reinstate its original purpose, rather than continuing wasteful project-by-project skirmishes.”

I agree—there are legitimate purposes for CEQA that should not be denuded or stripped away.  But at the same time, when a court rules there is no merit to the case, where the community follows the law, and the project is an affordable housing project, there has to be a way to expedite the process.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Matt Williams

    This is one of the best articles the Vanguard has published on housing.  Useful.  Illuminating. And most importantly on point regarding our housing situation here in Davis.

    Why do I say that? The acute housing need here in Davis is for affordable housing. Yet we have seen very few affordable housing projects proposed and built.  Paul’s Place is a good example.  Mike Corbett proposed and built a small affordable project in South Davis.  David Thompson and partners built Creekside.  Lawrence Sheppard and Chuck Cunningham and partners are in the final stages of building the workforce housing project at 3820 Chiles Blvd.  To the best of my knowledge none of these projects have had any CEQA lawsuit confrontations.  Where CEQA has been in evidence has been in market rate projects.  As Keith Echols has pointed out numerous times here in the Vanguard, adding new market rate housing to an existing community increases the $ per square foot “market rate” for all housing in the community, thereby making housing in that community less affordable rather than more affordable.

    Davis needs to reach out to State of California officials like Rob Bonta seeking state and federal funding for affordable housing projects in Davis. If we proactively do that, our  community will see more housing affordability actually happen.

    1. Richard_McCann

      Keith Echols is incorrect on this point and several recents studies posted by both David and me empirically show the opposite–instead adding more market rate housing reduces housing price inflation. Keith has not presented empirical evidence to support his assertion–only conversations with developers who honestly aren’t always best at projecting market trends. Andy Ford at Washington State wrote several articles on the boom-bust nature of real estate and the myopia of developers.

        1. Richard_McCann


          I don’t keep a list of the studies and the Vanguard doesn’t have an adequate index for me to go back and find what I’ve posted. David has some of them in that article, but I’ve posted others as well. Here’s Andy Ford’s articles on boom and bust in the energy industry. I saw his presentation on this issue:

        2. Matt Williams

          David thank you for posting that link.  The dialogue in the comments section was very illuminating.  Keith Echols did an excellent job illuminating and supporting his argument regarding the application of the study in the hyper-Demand-driven Davis market.  You and Richard failed to address any of Keith’s points.  Your arguments essentially were that Davis is the same kind of generic housing market as the ones in the study.  That is an obtuse argument.  Davis is a market where Demand far outstrips Supply … arguably between 10,000 and 20,000 units.  That was the calculated number prior to the pandemic.  Now with all the incremental demand from Bay Area flight, the imbalance is probably double what it was.

          You and Richard hang your hat on imperial data.  Let me suggest that a data study of where the buyers of Davis homes are coming from is going to confirm the impact of Bay Area flight on the Davis housing market Supply/Demand curve.  And with the exception of the Cannery, those sales to Bay Area buyers are of existing homes.  One of the factors that you and Richard don’t address is the price difference recent Davis home buyers have between the Bay Area house they have sold prior to moving to Davis and the house they are buying in Davis.  That substantial difference makes them highly price lactic buyers, which drives up the price per square foot of existing Davis homes.

          If you were a Bay Area homeowner looking to escape the hyper urbanity of the Bay Area, what Northern California community would be more attractive for you than Davis?  Davis is a perfect landing spot for aBay Area telecommuter.  Where in the study you cited is that local market reality addressed?

        3. Matt Williams

          A simpler way to illuminate imperially the dynamics of the Davis housing market is to answer the following question …

          The Cannery added 547 new housing units to the Davis housing market.  Since November 2013 when The Cannery was approved by City Council how has the average sale price per square foot in Davis changed?  NOTE: the raw imperial data that can answer that question is readily available.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Here’s a study which looks at the creation of “demand” and the resulting need which arises from the pursuit of growth:

    The cost of continued growth in SF: $20 billion for affordable housing

    Finally, a city study looks as the price tag for the pro-development policies of the past.

    Fortunately, the city hasn’t been able to continue on this path, lately (which is one reason that housing prices have fallen faster in the Bay Area than anywhere else in the country).  Though pandemic boom towns are perhaps more at risk of collapse.

    I do believe that existing residents have finally realized that continuous pursuit of economic development is what creates so-called “housing shortages” in the first place.  And ultimately puts communities on a collision course against their own representatives – who primarily cater to the business interests which support them.

    The “housing shortage” people (and their representatives) are entirely focused on “supply” (however that’s defined), and NEVER examine the causes of “demand”. This is not an “accidental oversight”.

    They also avoid discussing “alternatives” in the supply-demand model (e.g., the exodus of residents to other locales). The same type of “alternative” which caused folks to move to the Sacramento region from the Bay Area in the first place.

    And of course, they totally ignore downturns in the rental and for-sale housing market, as is now occurring.

    The “housing shortage” people are purposefully myopic in scope. Again, not an “accident”.

  3. Richard_McCann

    Ron O

    Tim Redmond is far from an unbiased source and the article you cite says nothing about the jobs-housing demand relationship. It only discusses spending on Affordable housing and nothing about how building more market based housing will impact housing market prices or meet the housing shortfall. You’ll need a lot more.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Tim Redmond is far from an unbiased source

      And you think the Vanguard (or you) are unbiased?

      In any case, it’s a city study, and did not originate from Tim Redmond.

      and the article you cite says nothing about the jobs-housing demand relationship.

      You clearly have problems with reading comprehension.  Either that, or you didn’t read it at all (despite the fact that it’s a pretty short article). And yet, you still commented on it.

      I’ll quote some passages for you:

      If San Francisco wants to continue to grow jobs at the level we’ve seen for the past decade, the city will need to spend $20 billion over the next 20 years to provide enough affordable housing for the workforce, a new study shows.

      The Jobs-Housing Fit report, which the Planning Department presented to the Board of Supes Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting today, is the result of efforts by Sup. Gordon Mar to make sure that policy makers know the impacts of future development.

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