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California Statewide

CEQA and Housing Production:

2018 Survey of California's Cities and Counties

As part of California’s housing crisis, there has been much debate (but very limited data) around how the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) affects housing production.  Some policymakers have called for a major overhaul of CEQA, while others maintain that it is critical to analyze and mitigate environmental impacts associated with housing development.  To build empirical data, The Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP), a statewide organization of environmental professionals, commissioned a survey to address the following questions:
  • How does CEQA review affect market-rate and affordable housing production in California?
  • Are available streamlining/exemption methods being used?
  • How does CEQA review affect the timing of housing project approvals? 
  • How could CEQA be further refined to increase both market-rate and affordable housing production?
The survey was distributed to every city and county in California (483 cities and 58 counties).[1] The 46 responding jurisdictions contain approximately 1/3rd of the state’s population (12.4 million) and include 7 of the 10 largest cities in the state. Significantly, responding jurisdictions accounted for 54% of all residential building permits for housing projects with 5+ units (subject to CEQA review) issued since 2010.  The collected data, covering all projects in the respondents’ jurisdiction under CEQA review between 2015 and 2017, profiles a total of 1,417 housing projects containing 144,111 units, including 15,115 affordable housing units.. 
Summary of Findings
  • Streamlining/Exemptions was the predominant type of environmental review used for housing projects in respondent jurisdictions (42% of projects), followed by Mitigated Negative Declarations (36% of projects).  Only 6% of projects were reviewed by EIRs. 
    • The most frequently used streamlining exemptions were Infill Exemptions, which accounted for 26% of housing projects.  
    • Tiering from Specific or Community Plans was used by 14% of housing projects.
    • The Affordable Housing and Transit exemptions were only modestly utilized.
  • EIRs were generally reserved for large projects with potentially the greatest environmental impacts on a community. The average size of projects that completed EIRs was 426 units, compared to an average project size of 91 units for MNDs, 119 units for projects tiering off a Specific or Community Plan, and 37 units for the Infill exemption.
  • While most jurisdictions reported having at least one adopted Specific Plan to facilitate tiered environmental review, more can be done to support tiered CEQA review for housing production.  Of the 46 responding jurisdictions, 27 have adopted one or more Specific/Community Plans that permitted tiering, but there was a substantial range in terms of the quantity of units in these plans compared to General Plan residential build-out estimates.  Half of respondents reported their Specific Plans usable for tiering encompassed over half of their General Plan residential buildout, while the other half reported significantly less.  This finding underscores the need for more state and regional funding to expand specific planning to support this process.
  • The estimated average time to complete a Negative Declaration was 6 months, followed by 8 months for MNDs, 15 months for EIRs, and 6 months for projects using Streamlining/Exemptions.  A follow-up study of statistically-weighted sample projects across California is needed to quantify and verify this much-debated issue.
  • The perceived frequency and reasons for project withdrawal may be overstated.  Some industry observers have cited withdrawal of projects during CEQA review as a signal that CEQA constrains housing production.  According to respondent data,  a total of 51 project with 3,706 units were withdrawn in the data collected, equivalent to a withdrawal rate of just 2.8 % of total units.  
The Study also provides recommendations to improve CEQA to increase housing production. 
The full report is available for download, here. 
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