Over the next few months, legislators will be debating new housing legislation — both state and local — to meet the pressing needs of California’s growing population. It is good that our legislators are facing the state’s affordable housing crisis head-on; having a decent home for everyone is critical. But as we work to meet that need, we must also ensure that the environment is not harmed.
Creating vibrant and complete urban communities requires a strong commitment to protecting and enhancing the quality of urban life. Some of the features shared by healthy urban communities include convenient public open spaces, parks, playgrounds and natural “unimproved” spaces. Creating these communities must also involve a commitment to preserving existing affordable housing, preventing displacement of low- and moderate-income residents, protecting cultural heritage, providing efficient public transit and sheltering existing communities from unreasonable economic and physical disruption.
It’s also critical that urban areas be non-polluting, so as to minimize our impacts upon this planet’s resources and environment.
When there is a lot of pressure for one set of needs — in this case, housing — there is the temptation to ignore other needs. There is a tendency to say that “just for this project” it is acceptable for the developer to ignore the need to carefully consider the impact on the environment.
One such short-sighted idea currently being discussed is to allow projects to be approved by-right and, in the process, to bypass environmental review now mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act.
The California Environmental Quality Act was passed in 1970 as part of a national wave of environmental protection legislation. CEQA requires project sponsors to disclose the environmental impacts of their proposed projects and accept public input on those impacts. It also requires project sponsors to mitigate those impacts. Moreover, CEQA empowers members of the public to legally challenge the adequacy of the environmental reviews.
The Sierra Club strongly supports the power of the people to participate in the development of rules, regulations, plans and evaluation criteria at every level of decision-making for their communities. Public input permitted by the CEQA environmental review process and modifications to projects in response to that input can actually make projects better.
Legislation that lets housing projects bypass the CEQA process is not fair to our communities, to our environment, nor to the very people for whom it claims to be providing housing. As new members of the community, they will also be paying the price of poor environmental decisions.
We have seen in the past that bypassing environmental review can lead to greater congestion and associated increases in air and water pollution, loss of habitat and loss of yet more species.
The environment is suffering desperately from serious stressors. The so-called Doomsday Clock — a scientific indicator of the world’s vulnerability to nuclear, environmental and political threats — is now set at fewer than three minutes to midnight. Can it be stopped? Not unless we do everything in our power to protect the planet.
Thoughtful city and regional planning with environmental protections is the best way to provide housing for people now and for a planet we can all call home for future generations. In California, CEQA and environmental review are a vital part of that planning.
Katherine Howard is a parks advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club. Susan Vaughan is a public transportation advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club.
Eye on the State examines the local implications of housing proposals brewing in the Capitol from the perspective of community, housing, labor and environmental advocates representing everyday people.