At first blush, it’s a bit confusing: Why, in a region that desperately needs more affordable housing, would there be so much opposition to a proposed law that would make it easier to build affordable housing?

The proposal in question was offered up last week by California Governor Jerry Brown as part of the state’s budget. It would streamline the approval process for new residential buildings with at least 20 percent affordable units (or 10 percent near transit) that already meet existing zoning by exempting them from an additional layer of environmental review, called CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act.

Credit: Daniel Hohern, Flickr
Credit: Daniel Hohern, Flickr


In essence, this is a kind of inclusionary zoning measure—something that many Bay Area affordable housing groups have historically supported—that promises regulatory advantages in exchange for below-market units. But unlike many inclusionary zoning laws, which allow developers to build taller or denser, Gov. Brown’s proposal would cede not one extra inch of height or additional apartment over what local cities have already designated.

Okay, so what’s the problem again? Well, virtually everywhere else in the country, if a developer wants to build something that matches their lot’s existing zoning, they can do so “as of right”: that is, as long as some local administrative body certifies that the plans actually meet zoning requirements, they get a construction permit.

But in California, developers can be required to go through the extra step of preparing a CEQA impact study. Essentially, that gives local bodies the ability to slow or block developments—even if they meet all existing zoning requirements.

A study late last year found that this layer of environmental review can add years to projects that would be routine in other parts of the country, and may well exacerbate urban sprawl, and its attendant environmental effects, because four out of five CEQA-related lawsuits focus on infill development. That gets to another central problem with CEQA as an environmental law: because it only considers impacts at the location of the proposed development, it can’t weigh the full tradeoffs of blocking housing construction in one location and thereby pushing it to another location where it may do even more environmental harm.

In other words, CEQA appears to be as much a special tool for obstructing development that meets local zoning requirements—or extracting more concessions from the developer—as a means of protecting the environment. It institutionalizes local discretion over development to an even greater extent than zoning.

Gov. Brown’s proposal, then, would reduce local discretion, acknowledging the statewide need for more housing, and especially relatively low-cost housing. While that may be good for California’s housing problems, it removes some of the negotiating power local authorities and organizations currently wield—hence, perhaps, their opposition.

This tension between local and regional or statewide power over development should be familiar. As we’ve written, when decisions are made at a local level, very place-specific costs like blocked views, competition for on-street parking, or “undesirable” neighbors are given high priority, while broader benefits to housing affordability, transportation access, and economic opportunity are often given short shrift. Not surprisingly, research has found that places where states exercise more power over development decisions have better housing outcomes, in the form of less segregation, than places where power is held more locally.

The battle in California reflects this dynamic. Local groups are put in the position of opposing a measure to speed the construction of affordable housing because it institutionalizes a broader kind of cost-benefit analysis, removing local discretion over every single project. (Of course, local governments still have the power to downzone, if they believe that the zoning they have already decided on is unacceptable, and the state law would not override that decision.) It’s also another data point suggesting that solutions to our “shortage of cities,” and resulting housing crunch, might be most likely to come from states, rather than city governments.