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Instead of protecting the environment, CEQA is now often misused to freeze a critical sector of our economy and keep our courts full.
Regulations in California have something of a dubious (and occasionally comical) reputation within the state and throughout the country. California is a state notoriously draped in red tape, complicating just about everything imaginable. After all, it was just last year that we were debating whether your morning coffee needed to come with a cancer warning. Unfortunately, some of the red tape in our state is misused to a much graver and more dangerous extent, putting low-income residents and entire sectors of the economy at risk.
Nowhere is this more plainly visible than in the weaponization of the California Environmental Quality Act, known more commonly as CEQA. Originally written with the noble intention of ensuring that new development projects around California were undertaken in an environmentally responsible manner, it has since become a blunt-force bit of regulation used to put permanent holds on important housing and development projects throughout the state. Instead of protecting the environment, CEQA is now often misused to freeze a critical sector of our economy and keep our courts full.
California’s housing prices have been impossibly high for some time, and they continue to rise. State residents are having a tough time finding an affordable place to live, and in one study conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, 35 percent of respondents said they are considering moving out of state altogether because of how expensive it has become to live here. California has long been a place where people dream of living, and we should not let housing prices get in their way.
Further, continuously rising housing and rent prices naturally can inflict devastating harm on the lower-income residents of California. How are they expected to support their families if they are forced to devote greater resources to simply having a place to call home with each passing day? Other costs of living are rising as well, and it is ridiculous to think that ever-increasing housing prices create a sustainable and welcoming environment for people who want to live and work here.
One very straightforward solution to this dilemma would, of course, be to swiftly and efficiently approve the construction of a greater number of affordable housing options. However, thanks to the layers of red tape put into place by CEQA and the threat of lawsuits that come with it, homebuilders are stuck. They are left unable to do their jobs, and housing and rent prices only continue to rise as they’re left on the sidelines.
Nowhere is this more problem clearer than in the rampant CEQA abuse employed by labor union representatives to strongarm developers into agreeing to project labor agreements. These representatives, proclaiming their concerns for the environment, will actually use CEQA complaints as an excuse to hold up important development projects to ensure a union-worker monopoly on the projects. This was seen just recently in San Diego, when Laborers Union Local 89 worked to block the building of 442 residential units just to force the developer into a project labor agreement. Their complaints are not and have never been about the environment; they are about forcing economic concessions out of developers.
Beyond the problem of making housing inaccessible to large swaths of the state population, the gridlock in housing development has an important and harmful ripple effect on all the industries that contribute to housing development as well. From the design phases and construction to utilities, maintenance and so much more, countless hardworking Californians rely on a robust and booming housing market for work.
The solution now is clear. It is up to our legislators in San Diego to make significant and meaningful changes to CEQA in the name of everyone in the state. Without substantial reform, CEQA will continue to be weaponized as a bulwark against the housing development low-income individuals and others across California so desperately need. It is possible to both ensure we maintain a healthy environment without blocking new development projects altogether.
Past regulations and red tape in California have provided plenty to laugh about, but this is something our legislators in Sacramento need to take seriously. A lot of people are counting on this reform so they can continue to live in the state we all love, and so California can continue to be a place where people across the United States dream of living one day.
Borre Winckel is president of the Building Industry Association of San Diego County.