By David M. Greenwald
Berkeley, CA – The only thing more predictable than the ruling by the courts— which found the university’s proposal failed to comply with several facets of CEQA and thus compelled UC Berkeley to postpone the project until it completes another environmental review—is the reaction by leaders like Governor Newsom expressing outrage.
But, as our commentary last week showed, complaints about CEQA have been omnipresent, while actual fixes have been small and inconsequential.
The San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board called him out on this Thursday. “Gavin Newsom is talking tough on CEQA. Let’s see some action,” they wrote. They’re right.
Here we are in a housing crisis, and the court is putting “much-needed housing on hold” this time “for about 1,100 students and 125 lower-income and homeless people in historic People’s Park.”
The Chronicle noted, “That housing for a student population — that is by some accounts 10% homeless — could be held hostage by hypothetical concerns over party noise says everything you need to know about CEQA’s failure to live up to a contemporary understanding of environmental harm.”
Even before the ruling, Assemblymember Josh Hoover, a Republican from Sacramento County, “introduced a bill to specify that population growth and noise resulting from a housing project cannot be considered an environmental impact under CEQ.”
Senator Scott Wiener has vowed to introduce legislation to prevent CEQA from requiring “evaluation of the type of people who will live in proposed new housing.”
For the Chronicle, “These are common-sense measures that should pass and be signed into law. But they are also the equivalent of Band-Aids patching bullet holes.”
Instead, they go much further: “CEQA requires sweeping, comprehensive reforms so that infill housing projects in urban, transit-friendly areas can’t continue to be bogged down by fraudulent lawsuits or weaponized by NIMBYs, labor and environmental groups to kill projects or extract unreasonable concessions.”
While Senator Wiener has certainly been a leader on housing issues in his time in the Senate, the Chronicle rightly points out that the state legislature needs to do more and that the person that needs to be a “champion for comprehensive reform” is Governor Newsom.
Again, as we pointed out last week, he’s said the right things.
He said, “California cannot afford to be held hostage by NIMBYs who weaponize CEQA to block student and affordable housing.”
He continued, “The law needs to change, and I am committed to working with lawmakers this year to making more changes so our state can build the housing we desperately need.”
As the Chronicle put it, “Bold and much-needed words. Newsom should put the might of his office where his mouth is by developing a robust package of bills to overhaul CEQA and shepherd it through the Legislature.”
This has been the frustration of the Newsom administration—they nibble around the edge, they talk a good game, but they have yet to deliver.
For instance, Newsom has laid out the need for additional housing, especially affordable housing, but has failed to deliver a mechanism to adequately fund it—you know, like a new RDA and Increment Tax.
He has talked about homelessness, but his budget proposals so far have been a faction of projected annual cost needed to really address the homeless population.
And now with CEQA reform, he has complained the last few years about CEQA abuses and litigation being used to stop needed housing project, but when it comes time to put his muscle behind the rhetoric, it has been absent.
As the Chronicle points out, the governor needs to push through legislation here.
They write, “The strategy would align with the governor’s recent focus on pursuing policy change through legislation rather than executive action.”
They noted that when he has taken that approach, he has been successful: “Despite the intense controversy, the Legislature passed CARE Court overwhelmingly. Lawmakers also approved five of Newsom’s six climate bills even though they were introduced with only about three weeks left in the legislative session.”
They point out: “The governor recognizes — and bragged about — his ability to shape legislative action.”
“I had to jam my own Democratic Legislature in the last few weeks of our session to get these … climate bills done,” Newsom said during an appearance at Climate Week NYC. “Had I not done that, all those special interests would have prevailed again to deny and delay.”
The Chronicle notes, “Newsom later apologized for those comments. But if he’s that confident in his capacity to prevent lawmakers from being swayed by special interests, all the more reason he should apply his talents to CEQA reform.”
Make no mistake, this is a difficult battle, as the Chronicle points out that “lawmakers have historically been wary of taking on sweeping reforms that could put them at odds with powerful groups, such as the State Building and Construction Trades Council, which have traditionally opposed CEQA streamlining bills that don’t come with strict labor requirements.”
None of this will be easy: “Any significant changes along these lines likely will be met with legal challenges, but that hasn’t stopped Newsom or the Legislature from pursuing other ambitious policies. And, although courts have historically interpreted CEQA broadly, increasing its powers and widening its scope, some have also acknowledged its limitations — and the ways in which it can be abused.”
The California Supreme Court, in a 2015 ruling—ironically, one dealing with another Berkeley CEQA lawsuit—argued, “Rules regulating the protection of the environment must not be subverted into an instrument for the oppression and delay of social, economic, or recreational development and advancement.”
As the end of the day, “By repeatedly failing to rein in CEQA and stand up to the groups that have wielded it in bad faith, California lawmakers have enabled the state’s housing crisis — forcing people out of the state or worse, onto our streets. “
The Chronicle argues: “Legislators need to take bold steps to mitigate the impacts of their inaction. Newsom can and should force their hands to do so.”
Will they? I’m less optimistic. But one thing is clear—pressure is mounting in places that have traditionally been resistant to take on laws like CEQA.