Is California's Legacy Environmental Law Protecting Beauty or Blocking Affordable Housing?
An affordable housing project intended to help ease the Silicon Valley housing crisis has been stalled since last year due to a lawsuit filed by a neighboring homeowner. KCBX reports that the attorney who works out of a two-story house behind the now vacant lot—which received approval from Redwood City for a 20-unit building developed by nonprofit Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco—contends that it violates the decades-old California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because it could increase traffic. However, it is important to note that the proposed building could also block the current view from the lawyer's house.
Though CEQA is heralded by environmentalists as supplying some of the strongest protection in the country against environmental damage and is meant to help provide transparency and a higher quality of life for all Californians, this case is a poster child for the need to reform. Developers and other critics believe that court decisions and opportunists have "broadened and weaponized the law" so that it actively impedes housing, particularly in urban and lower-income areas.
Partner Jennifer Hernandez, who is helping represent Habitat for Humanity in this case pro bono and is one of the state's most vocal advocates for changing the law, stated, "This is not about the environment. This signature environmental law is being hijacked to advance economic interests."
Speaking upon lawsuits such as this, Ms. Hernandez pointed out one of CEQA's greatest flaws. "CEQA lawsuits can be filed anonymously. And they can be filed by people who have only economic competition at stake. They can be filed by competitors, unions—frankly, racist neighbors. Anybody.” She added that it is very easy for plaintiffs to win these kinds of cases because of the law's loose definition of what protectable "environment" includes, among other problems; often, as a result, a development project's funding will immediately freeze once a suit is filed.
"The filed lawsuits are the tip. Underneath the surface is the 90 percent of the iceberg, and it’s why we’ll spend three years trying to get a project approved. And every one of those days adds to the cost of housing."