California is facing a housing crisis of unprecedented proportions. Lower-income residents across the state must choose whether to pay for rent or food. People who can’t cover housing costs are forced to leave their homes, their neighborhoods and even the state.
But as legislators resume discussions regarding policy solutions, we must be clear: California’s environmental regulations did not cause the housing crisis and eviscerating the California Environmental Quality Act would harm disadvantaged communities.
Some developers claim the California Environmental Quality Act is a major factor behind the state’s unmet housing needs. But multiple studies have shown this act, a bedrock of California environmental law, plays a limited role in determining whether and where housing is built.
Conversely, the environmental quality act is a critical tool that protects housing stability, public health, and the environment in low-income communities of color, which bear the brunt of the impacts of polluting land uses.
Throughout our state’s history, public agencies have allowed toxic waste dumps, oil wells, refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities to locate disproportionately in and around these communities. These land use patterns continue today.
When applied correctly and consistently with its purpose, the California Environmental Quality Act gives communities the opportunity to provide input on how development will impact their neighborhoods and the best ways those impacts may be mitigated or avoided.
Public agencies must respond to resident input in their environmental review of projects. No other state law guarantees a seat at the table for disadvantaged communities in land use decisions which impact their health and their future.
The unfair concentration of polluting land uses in low-income communities contributes to a toxic soup of air, water and soil contamination that manifests in disproportionately shorter life spans for residents.
Elevated pollution exposure, drying domestic wells, rumbling diesel trucks, noxious odors, and a myriad of other project impacts can make housing unlivable, displacing residents, destabilizing communities, and further depleting available housing.
The California Environmental Quality Act alone offers communities a meaningful way to fight back by requiring agencies to identify specific measures to reduce impacts where feasible. Legislation limiting those rights would undermine public health and safety and exacerbate our housing crisis.
The environmental law is one of our most potent tools for fighting environmental racism. We must seek to build upon its core principle to protect the environment “consistent with the provision of a decent home and suitable living environment for every Californian,” not undermine it.
Legislators should look behind the rhetoric at who is funding the groups seeking to weaken this law. They’ll find the most vocal individuals leading the charge have ties to polluters and real estate developers. They—not disadvantaged communities—will benefit if our state representatives weaken our environmental laws.
Pitting environmental protections against economic opportunity and racial justice creates a false choice. We can maintain and construct affordable housing while also protecting the natural resources we all need to thrive.
All Californians have a right to clean air and water and a safe, affordable place to live. To imply that disadvantaged communities can only have one or the other is patronizing and unfair.
Policymakers should not be misled into using the state’s preeminent environmental law as the scapegoat for California’s housing crisis. Instead, state leaders must acknowledge the true causes of our state’s serious housing disparities and needs and take targeted action to address them by:
- Eliminating unwarranted restrictions on local rent control laws
- Providing legal representation to low-income tenants in eviction proceedings
- Addressing barriers to housing within rural communities.
These policies would move us closer to ensuring all Californians have an affordable, decent quality home. We can and must address the housing crisis without sacrificing California’s core environmental protections.
Ashley Werner is a senior attorney for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.