In recent years, the State of California has taken significant steps to encourage the construction of more housing, particularly within already-developed areas. Early signals from Governor Gavin Newsom indicate that state pressures on cities and counties to encourage residential construction are likely only to increase from here. And that’s as it should be. Especially for low-income Californians, housing is no longer affordable in much of the state – particularly in coastal areas like Orange County.
The most effective way to address our housing crisis is to develop and enforce policies that are laser-targeted to increase housing supply and address issues of affordability. This issue is simply too important to waste time and energy chasing down red herrings that won’t make a meaningful difference in the supply of affordable housing. For example, Governor Newsom’s recent decision to support legal action against the City of Huntington Beach for shirking its responsibility to zone enough land for affordable housing units sends a clear signal to jurisdictions throughout California: state regulators are prepared to enforce existing housing law to meet the demand for affordable housing.
Unfortunately, big developers, banks and their mouthpieces are attempting to leverage the housing crisis as an excuse to weaken key environmental laws like the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Weakening our state’s premier environmental law would pave the way for developers to make big profits by building tract homes on agricultural land, open space and fire-prone areas that are inappropriate for development instead of producing infill-style housing. Removing environmental protections would also clear the way for oil producers and trucking companies to pollute our shared air and water instead of taking steps to protect public health.
Many developers prefer to build single-family homes in undeveloped areas because they enjoy higher profits than they might in redeveloping a parcel that’s close to existing businesses and transit. But single-family homes built far away from jobs ultimately cost more, not only in purchase price but in transportation costs, commute times, and in many cases, wildfire risk. And they create more traffic and air pollution for all of us.
The long-term solution to our affordable housing crisis is infill housing, built within urban areas and with access to transit options. Infill development is both more affordable by design and consistent with other state priorities, like improving air quality and limiting the impacts of climate change. Town homes built in urbanized areas often cost much less than traditional single-family homes in suburbia – sometimes half the price – enabling more young families to become homeowners without giving up the benefits of city living.
We don’t need to make any changes to our state’s environmental laws, including CEQA, to reach current and projected housing goals. CEQA has been revised and streamlined in recent years specifically to encourage infill housing. And very few lawsuits are actually filed under CEQA: less than 1% of projects subject to CEQA review are challenged in court. Several independent studies, including two recent reports from UC Berkeley, show that local policies and regulations – rather than state planning and environmental review requirements – are the real source of the homebuilding holdup.
State policymakers – from Governor Newsom to local city council members – can and must find a way to make housing more affordable while still protecting precious natural lands, public health, water supplies and air quality. Such solutions should retain laws like CEQA, which give all members of the public a voice in land use decisions that affect their community. And they should prioritize targeted solutions that directly address the question of the hour: how to provide safe, healthy and affordable housing for every Californian.
Claire Schlotterbeck is Executive Director of Hills For Everyone (founders of Chino Hills State Park) and a 40-year Orange County resident.
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