2018 survey of California cities and counties

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Environmental Practice
ISSN: 1466-0466 (Print) 1466-0474 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/uevp20
CEQA and housing production: 2018 survey of
California cities and counties
Janet Smith-Heimer & Jessica Hitchcock
To cite this article: Janet Smith-Heimer & Jessica Hitchcock (2019) CEQA and housing
production: 2018 survey of California cities and counties, Environmental Practice, 21:2, 69-84, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14660466.2019.1609848
Published online: 06 Jun 2019.
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CEQA and housing production: 2018 survey of California cities and counties
Janet Smith-Heimer a and Jessica Hitchcock b
The Housing Workshop, Jenner, California; b
Urban Math, San Francisco, California
California is facing a severe housing shortage and needs to substantially increase housing
production above current production levels to dampen soaring prices. Legislators have considered legal and policy changes to support increased production, including a range of incremental
to sweeping changes to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) regarding its application
to housing projects. There has been limited empirical analysis of how CEQA affects housing
production. This study, which seeks to build empirical data, presents results from a survey of
California municipalities about the choices made to conduct CEQA environmental review for
housing projects proposed between 2015 to 2017, including the use of several types of streamlining and exemptions. The survey, sent to all 541 of California’s cities and counties, yielded 46
responses (9% response rate). These participating jurisdictions accounted for 54% of all multifamily residential (5+ units) building permits issued between 2010 and 2017. Survey responses
indicated the Streamlining/Exemptions category was the predominant category of environmental
review followed by Mitigated Negative Declarations. Only 6% of projects were reviewed by
Environmental Impact Reports. Respondents selected CEQA relatively infrequently among factors
constraining new supply, with high development costs, neighborhood opposition, lack of sites,
and lack of affordable housing funding as more common constraints to expanding supply.
Received 26 February 2019
Accepted 17 April 2019
California Environmental
Quality Act; CEQA;
streamlining; CEQA
exemptions; tiering;
community and specific
plans; California housing
production; California
affordable housing;
environmental review
In 1970, California passed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which was modeled
after the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
but extended required environmental review to
a much broader range of projects and programs.
CEQA applies to all development proposals in
California regulated by public agencies, including
housing developments.1 The statute’s goal is to
inform decision-makers and the public about potential environmental impacts and identify ways to
mitigate those impacts to the extent feasible.
Almost 50 years after the passage of CEQA, California
is facing a severe housing shortage. According to
a 2015 study by the California Legislative Analyst’s
Office (LAO), California’s High Housing Costs, far less
housing has been built in the state than needed to
accommodate growth, which has led to rising rents
and home prices. The LAO estimates in addition to
the 100,000 to 140,00 housing units California is
expected to build each year, another 100,000 additional units need to be added to make an impact on
housing costs. As a result, policymakers have been
calling for decisive changes to a broad range of policies
to support production.
In recent years, there has been much debate around
how to amend CEQA to increase housing production. Some developers and policymakers have called
for extensive changes to the law, believing that
CEQA has negative cost and timing impacts on
market-rate and affordable housing production
(Hernandez, 2015). However, CEQA supporters
maintain that it is critical to analyze and mitigate
CONTACT Jessica Hitchcock [email protected]
Color versions of one or more of the figures in the article can be found online at www.tandfonline.com/uevp. 1
CEQA applies to housing projects that require discretionary approval, which includes deliberation or judgment by a public agency in
determining whether a project will be approved or if a permit will be issued. Many minor projects, such as single-family homes,
remodeling, and accessory structures are exempt from CEQA requirements (Class 3 categorical exemption) (Governor’s Office of
Planning and Research 2019). Other housing projects, if they meet certain criteria, can qualify for exemptions (Governor’s Office of
Planning and Research 2019).
2019, VOL. 21, NO. 2, 69–84
© 2019 National Association of Environmental Professionals
the environmental impacts associated with housing
development (Planning and Conservation League
Foundation, 2005). In this debate, there has been
little empirical evidence about how CEQA affects
production and the degree to which environmental
review serves as a constraint to expanding housing
The lack of data leaves CEQA open to calls for
extensive change or elimination, which in turn may
cause unintended consequences such as a decline in
environmental quality. To date, no comprehensive
data about CEQA review methods including the use
of exemptions and streamlining options have been
The Association of Environmental Professionals
(AEP), a state-wide organization representing
environmental professionals, commissioned
a study to answer the following questions:
● How does CEQA review affect overall housing production for market-rate and affordable
units in California?
● Are available streamlining/exemption methods being used? 3
● How does CEQA review4 affect the timing of
housing project approvals?
● How could CEQA be further refined to increase
market-rate and affordable housing production?
CEQA’s historic relationship to housing
CEQA became state law in 1970, almost five decades
ago. Figure 1 traces residential building permit trends
from 1960, 10 years prior to CEQA’s adoption,
through 2017. Figure 1 illustrates the profoundly
cyclical nature of housing production in California,
as well as the overall decline in absolute numbers of
units produced at the peak of each cycle.
The early 1960s housing boom peaked in 1963,
when 304,200 units were permitted. The next
peak was reached in 1972, two years after CEQA
was implemented, when 279,300 housing units
were permitted. The 1980s created a robust cycle,
so that by 1986, over 314,000 housing units were
permitted. That year – 1986 – was the highest level
of housing production for the entire 57-year period. The peak year for the next real estate cycle
occurred in 2004, when 205,000 units were permitted, a substantial drop from the heights of
1986. After 2004, production declined through
the Great Recession, then started to recover again
in 2010. Recovery has continued through 2017, but
at significantly lower levels than previous cycles,
with just 115,000 housing units permitted in 2017.
In sum, California is not producing enough new
housing, and it is unclear which specific factors are
driving this anemic growth. The State Legislative
Analyst’s Office estimated that California needs to
produce an average of 210,000 units per year or
more to limit price rises to national averages
(California Legislative Analyst’s Office, 2015).
California does not require municipalities to track or
report how housing applications are reviewed under
CEQA. To analyze how CEQA impacts housing
production in California, therefore, requires extensive data collection. For this study, a survey was
distributed to all 541 California cities and counties.
The survey was posted online with an email invitation containing the survey link sent to one staff
member of each municipality in California. Target
recipients were a combination of AEP members
The last major survey of CA cities and counties was completed in 1991 (Landis et al. 1995; Olshansky 1996), before more recent
streamlining options were permitted. The study was also not limited to housing projects.
California’s legislature enacted a series of CEQA streamlining tools intended to promote the expeditious review of eligible infill
projects, including small infill (CEQA Guidelines §15,332 and §15,183.3; PRC §21,094.5), affordable housing (CA Government Code
§15,194), transit priority projects (PRC §21,155.1), and projects consistent with approved specific and community plans (CEQA
Guidelines §15,183 and §15,152; Government Code §65,457).
The Lead Agency responsible for approving a project conducts an Initial Study to determine if potentially significant impacts are likely.
Depending on the outcome of the Initial Study, the Lead Agency may recommend the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report
(EIR), a comprehensive analysis, if potential significant adverse impacts are identified. Projects not expected to create significant
environmental harm require less extensive analysis, either through negative declarations or mitigated negative declarations.
working as staff in the public sector (which represents roughly 115 of the 541 jurisdictions), supplemented by internet research to identify the likely
staff person responsible for environmental review.
The initial survey was emailed on May 18, 2018
with a follow-up email sent on June 4, 2018. To
boost participation further, the study authors
directly contacted the top 50 largest cities and the
top 20 most rapidly developing jurisdictions,
multiple times over the following two months.
Additional follow-up was conducted with respondents, some of whom were not able to initially
provide all information requested, and to clarify
project and unit counts. The study authors also
directly sorted and cleaned raw databases for two
jurisdictions that had data but lacked the staff capacity in-house to query databases. This data support
provided by the report authors was then reviewed
and verified by each of the two cities.
Figure 1. California residential building permits 1960–2017.
Source: US Census Building Permits Survey. See Appendix A for data.
Forty-six jurisdictions responded to the survey,
equivalent to a 9% response rate (see Table 1). The
respondent jurisdictions included seven of the 10
largest cities in California, and also encompassed
a diverse mix of economic conditions ranging from
coastal to inland location, urban to rural development,
and with a range of population sizes (see Table 2).
In total, cities and counties responding to this survey
represented approximately one-third of the state’s
population, or 12.4 million residents. These jurisdictions accounted for 40% of all residential building
permits issued in California since 2010, and significantly, 54% of all residential building permits issued
for housing projects with five or more units since
2010. This sample represents the largest dataset of
housing project applications associated with CEQA
review collected to date, offering insight into how
CEQA is being applied to housing production.
Housing production index
In California, not every jurisdiction experiences housing development at the same pace; some municipalities add housing units in greater magnitude than
others due to a range of factors such as the strength
of the underlying economy, available land supply,
strong local demand, and local policies favoring
To measure this aspect of housing supply growth,
each respondent jurisdiction was analyzed and
ranked according to its housing unit growth relative
to the state average. This metric, called the housing
Table 1. Respondent jurisdictions by population.
Survey Respondents Balance of CA Total For CA Respondents Share of CA
Number of Jurisdications 46 495 541 8.5%
Population 2018 1,24,10,047 2,73,99,646 3,98,09,693 31.2%
Housing Unit Permits 2010–2017
Single Family Units 77,985 2,26,492 3,04,477 25.6%
Projects with 2–4 Units 9,970 10,280 20,250 49.2%
Projects with 5+ Units 1,64,751 1,37,975 3,02,726 54.4%
Total Permits 2,52,706 3,74,747 6,27,453 40.3%
Sources: Population from CA Dept. of Finance, Housing Permits from US Census Bureau; The Housing Workshop; 2018.
Table 2. Respondent jurisdictions by population.
Population ≥ 250,000 Population 100,000– 250,000
City of Modesto 0.8% City of Los Angeles 6.2% City of Anaheim* City of Corona
City of Salinas 1.2% City of Saint Helena 6.2% City of Bakersfield* City of Elk Grove
City of Richmond 1.4% City of Livermore 6.2% City of Irvine City of Fremont
City of Long Beach 1.6% City of Fremont 6.4% City of Long Beach* City of Fontana
City of Merced, CA 1.6% City of Oxnard 6.6% City of Los Angeles* City of Modesto
City of Santa Barbara 2.5% City of West Sacramento 6.8% City of Riverside City of Moreno Valley
City of Napa 2.5% City of Winters 7.0% City of Sacramento* City of Oxnard
City of Moreno Valley 2.6% San Francisco 7.1% City and County of San Francisco* City of Richmond
City of American Canyon 2.8% City of San Jose 7.4% City of San Jose* City of Salinas
County of San Diego 3.2% City of Elk Grove 7.9% City of Santa Clara
City of Santa Monica 3.3% City of Los Altos Hills 7.9% County of San Diego City of Santa Clarita
City of Riverside 3.3% City of Foster City 7.9% City of Santa Rosa
City of Santa Rosa 3.4% City of Chico 9.2% City of Roseville
City of La Habra 3.4% Town of Truckee 9.4%
City of Santa Clarita 3.9% City of Bakersfield 9.5% County of Santa Barbara
County of Santa Barbara 4.0% City of Santa Clara 10.9%
City of Sacramento 4.1% City of Mountain View 13.4%
City of Watsonville 4.1% City of Dinuba 15.1%
City of Loyalton N/A City of Chino 19.2%
City of Irvine 36.0%
State of California 5.0%
a) Respondents ranked on “production” measured by the number of residential building permits
issued for 2000–2017 period per 2000 households, compared to State of California average.
* one of 10 largest cities in California
Source: The Housing Workshop, 2018.
Source: The Housing Workshop, 2018.
production index, compares the number of new
housing units permitted between 2010 and 2017 to
the 2010 baseline number of existing households
(which is equivalent to occupied housing units).
This approach factors out a vacant standing inventory
of housing units. Expressed as a percentage (residential building permits issued between 2010 and 2017 as
a percent of baseline 2010 households), each jurisdiction was then compared to the State of California’s
overall housing production level of 5% (number of
residential permits issued state-wide between 2010
and 2017 as a percent of baseline state households in
2010). Those jurisdictions with a lower production
index than the State were considered “below-average
production” jurisdictions, and those above the State
level were deemed “above-average production.”
Figure 2 shows the survey respondents’ housing production index and corresponding categorizations
related to housing unit production. Production
Figure 2. Respondents by housing production index compared to state (a).
a) Respondents ranked on “production” measured by number of residential building permits issued for 2010–2017 period per 2010
households, compared to State of California average.
indices ranged from a low of 0.2% to 36.0%.
Respondent communities were generally well distributed between below-average (22 jurisdictions) and
above-average production (24 jurisdictions).
CEQA review of housing projects and units
Table 3 summarizes the survey results and shows the
type of CEQA analysis used to review housing applications with five or more units received between 2015
and 2017 from respondent jurisdictions.5 The survey
captured 1,417 housing projects containing 144,111
The Streamlining/Exemptions category 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 (Figure 3).
When analyzing CEQA review by units, Mitigated
Negative Declaration (MND) was the largest category
of environmental review, used to assess over 46,000 of
the 144,000-unit sample (32% of units), followed by
the various forms of Streamlining/Other Exemptions
(28% of units). The third largest category, EIR review,
covered 33,700 of the units in the sample (23% of
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 projects
using the Infill Exemption.
Streamlining exemptions
Starting in 1981, California began passing legislation
to expedite environmental review for certain priority
housing projects, including residential developments
tiering off certified community or specific plans,
infill sites, and transit-oriented development.
The survey results suggest that municipalities are utilizing these available exemptions, with certain
Table 3. Survey data for all housing project applications (5+ Units), 2015–2017.
Number Percent Number Percent Project Size.
EIR 79 5.6% 33,651 23.4% 426
Mitigated Negative Declaration 508 35.9% 46,162 32.0% 91
Negative Declaration 12 0.8% 1,512 1.0% 126
Categorical Exemption (a) 126 8.9% 6,024 4.2% 48
Statutory Exemption (b) 5 0.4% 180 0.1% 36
Streamlining and Other Exemptions 600 42.3% 39,603 27.5% 66
Tiering from Specific or Community Plans (c) 195 13.8% 23,227 16.1% 119
Affordable Housing Exemption (d) 6 0.4% 459 0.3% 77
Infill Exemption (e) 361 25.5% 13,444 9.3% 37
Transit Priority Project Exemption (f) 38 2.7% 2,473 1.7% 65
Other (g) 87 6.1% 16,979 11.8% 195
Total 1,417 100.0% 1,44,111 100.0% 102
a) CEQA Guidelines §15301–15333.
b) CEQA Guidelines §15260–15285.
c) CEQA Guidelines §15183 and §15152; Govt Code §65457.
d) CA Govt Code §15194.
e) CEQA Guidelines §15332 and §15183.3; PRC §21094.5.
f) PRC §21155.1.
g) “Other” includes addendas to previous EIRs.
Data collected by online survey + follow up, March – August 2018.
Source: The Housing Workshop, 2018.
The survey did not inquire about smaller housing projects with less than five units because most are exempt from CEQA (Class 3
categorical exemption) (Governor’s Office of Planning and Research 2019).
exemptions used more frequently than others. In the
sample, 39,600 units in 60 projects were reviewed by
a Streamlining/Other Exemptions method, accounting for 42% of housing projects and 28% of housing
units. As shown in Figure 4, Tiering from Specific and
Community Plans and Infill Exemptions were most
commonly used.
It is notable that the Transit and Affordable
Housing exemptions were only modestly utilized.
Only 2,473 housing units of the 144,111-unit sample (1.7%) used the Transit Priority Project
Exemption. An even smaller proportion, 0.3% of
the units in the sample, used the affordable housing exemption.
Tiering from specific and community plans
Anticipating that tiering from Specific/Community
Plans would be an important streamlining method,
the survey asked several follow-up questions, including how many Specific or Community Plans had
been adopted in the jurisdiction.
Of the 46 jurisdictions responding to the survey,
27 municipalities reported having adopted one or
more Specific or 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. As
shown in Figure 5, half of the respondents
reported their Specific Plans covered over 50% of
their General Plan buildout area, while the other
half reported significantly less coverage.
This finding underscores the need for continued
planning to support tiered CEQA review for housing
production in targeted areas; new funding streams
from state and regional sources for expanded housing Specific Plans will support this process.
CEQA review for market-rate versus affordable
housing units
One of the factors that can impact how a housing
project is reviewed under CEQA is its status as
a market-rate or affordable project. This study
Figure 3. Distribution of projects and units by type of CEQA review.
“Streamlining/Other Exemptions” refers to: CP/SP Exemption CEQA Guidelines 15183 and 15152/Govt Code 65457; Affordable
Housing Streamlining Exemption govt Code 15,194; Infill Exemption CEQA Guidelines 15332 and 15183.3/PRC 21094.5; and
Transit Priority Project PRC 21155.1. “Other” includes addendums to previous EIRs.Source: The Housing Workshop, 2018.
Figure 4. Streamlining by subcategory (for Units).
explored if affordable housing projects were treated
differently than market-rate projects during CEQA
Figure 6 compares a CEQA review by market-rate
(N = 128,996 units) versus affordable developments
(N = 15,115 units) on a unit count basis. A somewhat
higher proportion of affordable units (28% of total
units) was subject to EIR review compared to market-rate units (23% of total units). This same pattern
held in the utilization of Mitigated Negative
Declarations, typically a quicker and less costly process than EIRs; a greater proportion of market-rate
units than affordable units had the benefit of MND
However, affordable units invoked Streamlining/
Other Exemptions to a greater extent than marketrate units, and most were reviewed by tiering from
Specific Plans or using the Infill Exemption. Just
a very small number, 387 of the 15,115 affordable
units in the sample, were reviewed using the
Affordable Housing Exemption.6 Some cities attributed this to excessive requirements limiting the
number of projects that qualify for the Affordable
Housing Exemption, while others cited political
pressure to conduct full EIRs even if other methods
could have applied.
CEQA review by production index
Another lens through which to consider this data
is whether there are differences in the ways aboveaverage jurisdictions process CEQA housing applications compared to lower-production cities. The
survey sample tracked 122,070 units in jurisdictions with an above-average production index, and
22,041 units located in jurisdictions with a below3
Less than 5% 5-20% of GP
buildout area
20-50% of GP
buildout area
50-75% of GP
buildout area
75-100% of GP
buildout area
Nmber of Jurisdictions in Sample
Figure 5. Adopted specific/community plans’ coverage of gen plan residential buildout.
Figure 6. CEQA review of market-rate and affordable units.
Note that 439 units were reviewed using the Affordable Housing Exemption, including 387 actual affordable units and 42 marketrate units (presumably in eligible projects).
average production index. Figure 7 compares the
CEQA review methods for the two categories of
CEQA review utilizing full EIRs was proportionately more common in above-average production communities, despite the perception that
EIRs take longer to complete than other CEQA
review methods. Above-average production locations also relied more heavily on Mitigated
Negative Declarations than below-average locations, while the below-average production locations relied more heavily on Streamlining/Other
Projects withdrawn from CEQA review
Some policy observers have cited withdrawal of
projects during CEQA review as a signal that
CEQA discourages project applicants to the point
of ceasing the process of housing development.
Survey respondents were asked several questions
about the rate of project withdrawal, including
units in these withdrawn projects, and reasons
for the withdrawal. Los Angeles had a notably
high number of reported project withdrawals during the three-year study period and is therefore
shown separately for comparison.
In total, for all jurisdictions reporting, there were
51 project withdrawals with 3,706 units, or
a withdrawal rate of 2.8% of total units in the
survey sample (see Table 4). These data suggest
that the anecdotes about CEQA causing project
withdrawal, while possibly accurate for a singular
high-profile project, do not represent an overall
discernable pattern.
Respondents were also asked to assign percentages
to a list of withdrawal reasons generally related to
their jurisdiction’s experience. As shown in Table 5,
just a small fraction of withdrawals was due to
unavoidable environmental impacts. The largest
category of withdrawal reasons was developerFigure 7. Distribution of CEQA review methods by production index.
Table 4. Housing application and unit withdrawals, surveyed cities, 2015–2017.
Los Angeles (a) All Other Jurisdictions (b) Total
Projects Units Projects Units Projects Units
Total Withdrawn, 2015–2017 30 1,932 21 1,774 51 3,706
Completed CEQA Review, 2015–2017 658 45,736 697 88,525 1,355 1,34,261
Withdrawal Rate 4.6% 4.2% 3.0% 2.0% 3.8% 2.8%
a) Los Angeles is shown separately due to an unusually high rate of project withdrawal.
Three jurisdictions did not provide withdrawal data for this survey: County of San Diego, City of San Jose, and the City of Chino.
Five jurisdictions did not provide environmental review data: Bakersfield, Benicia, Elk Grove, Loyalton, San Diego County.
Adjustments were made to the figures below so the numerator and denominator were comparable.
Source: The Housing Workshop, 2018.
related (e.g., bankruptcy, change in business model,
Timing of CEQA review methods
The survey asked about the average time the jurisdiction spent on each type of CEQA review. As
shown in Figure 8, the average time for Negative
Declarations was 6 months, but when segregated
by Production Index, the above-average jurisdictions reported an average Negative Declaration
time of 5 months. Similar patterns were reported
for each type of review; Mitigated Negative
Declarations and streamlined review occurred
more quickly, on average, in above-average production jurisdictions.
It should be noted that the California Legislative
Analyst’s Office found “…review of CEQA documents submitted to the state by California’s ten
largest cites between 2004 and 2013 indicates that
local agencies took, on average, around two and
a half years to approve housing projects that
required an EIR” (California Legislative
Analyst’s Office, 2015). That finding differs from
this survey, which finds an average of 15 months.
The LAO report appears to be describing the total
approval process for these projects (not just the
EIR portion) and does not provide supporting
Opinions about CEQA’s impact on housing
Factors constraining housing production
Survey participants were asked to select the top
three constraints from a list of factors affecting
market-rate housing and separately, affordable
housing production in the respondent’s jurisdiction (see Figure 9).
The top three factors limiting market-rate housing production cited by respondents were high
development costs, non-CEQA related neighborhood opposition, and lack of available sites.
CEQA review was selected just 4 times out of
the 112 responses received.
For factors constraining affordable housing production, the most frequently selected were lack of financing, high development costs, and loss of
redevelopment agencies. For affordable housing,
CEQA review was attributed just 2 times out of 124
As a follow-up to the above question, the survey also
requested comments about how CEQA limits new
Table 5. Reasons for project withdrawal from CEQA review.
Reasons for Withdrawal Percent
Unavoidable Adverse Environmental Impacts 2%
Public or other opposition arising through CEQA 16%
Non-CEQA related opposition 10%
Developer-related reasons (e.g., bankruptcy, change in
business model, etc.)
Other reasons 22%
Total 100%
Excludes Los Angeles (did not answer the question).
Source: The Housing Workshop, 2018.
Figure 8. Average time to complete each environmental review type.
This study did not attempt to quantify the litigation rate associated with housing projects. Other studies have dealt with this topic
(BAE Urban Economics 2016; Senate Environmental Quality Committee 2017).
housing production in the respondent’s jurisdiction.
The results were mixed. Comments from many
respondents (17 out of 30) felt that CEQA did not
constrain housing in their jurisdiction. Four respondents had mixed opinions, citing issues including
CEQA mixed with other development challenges
and general political and resident concern. Nine
respondents felt that CEQA was a key constraint to
more housing production in their community, with
comments generally stating that CEQA added time
and/or cost to the approval process for housing.
Interestingly, these opinions about CEQA and
housing production did not seem to vary by the
jurisdiction’s Housing Production Index rating. In
fact, 11 of the 17 respondents that felt that CEQA
did not impact housing production in their city or
county were working in “below average production” jurisdictions, suggesting that other factors
were impacting production in substantial ways.
CEQA modifications
The survey queried respondents about key changes
that could be made to CEQA to further support
housing production. Responses emerged around
three major categories:
● Modify CEQA by expanding exemptions,
relaxing requirements for the affordable
housing exemption, creating more streamlining opportunities, mandating timelines for
review, and reducing thresholds for analysis
and legal review
● Improve implementation by offering more
training and technical assistance on streamlining tools and exemptions, and providing
funding for the creation of specific plans
● Simplify the litigation process by creating
a dedicated system of judges with CEQA
expertise, requiring opposition disclose funding sources, shifting court fees so loser pays,
and reducing opportunities for lawsuits.
Other measures to improve housing production
Finally, the survey asked respondents to provide suggestions to increase housing production outside of the
CEQA process. The most frequently cited responses
revolved around streamlining local approvals and
identifying more funding sources for affordable
● Revive California’s Redevelopment Agencies
(dissolved legislatively in 2012)
0 5 10 15 20 25
Costs to build are too high
Neighborhood opposition to
Lack of available sites
Market-rate production is not
Mis-matched supply and demand
Other aspects of the entitlement
Lack of adequate infrastructure
Political concerns about
community changes
Loss of redevelopment agency
Other reasons
CEQA Review
Lack of access to capital
Number of Responses
Market-Rate Housing Production
Above Avg.Production Below Avg. Production
0 5 10 15 20 25
Lack of affordable housing
Costs to build are too high
Loss of redevelopment agency
Lack of available sites
Neighborhood opposition to
Mis-matched supply and demand
Other reasons
Political concerns about
community changes
Lack of adequate infrastructure
Affordable production is not
CEQA Review
Other aspects of the entitlement
Number of Responses
Affordable Housing Production
Above Avg.Production Below Avg. Production
Figure 9. Factors constraining market-rate and affordable housing production.
● Streamline the entitlement process (e.g., zoning,
design review, plan approvals, permits, etc.)
● Create more funding and improve subsidies
for affordable housing
● Enhance by-right approvals by shifting to
objective and quantitative standards that can
be administered ministerially
Next steps
This study presents empirical results about how
California cities and counties review housing applications through CEQA and provides a large set of data
about how various methods of review are being used.
Collecting this type of detailed project data is generally
time-consuming and challenging, due to wide variation
of local databases and project tracking methods. The
study authors strongly recommend that the State of
California require a single online reporting mechanism
to track how every housing application for new development is reviewed, as well as the timing of each major
step in the review process. Such a mandatory reporting
mechanism would enable a state-wide analysis of the
efficacy of expanding exemptions and streamlining
processes, allowing for further process modifications.
In addition, it is important to note that this study does
not fully answer the question of how CEQA implementation could be improved while still maintaining
a consistent system of analysis, identification, and mitigation of environmental impacts to maintain state-wide
environmental goals. A recent study suggests that other
factors, including local discretionary review processes,
may be impeding housing development more so than
CEQA (Biber et al. 2018). More analysis needs to be
conducted to understand CEQA’s impact at the project
level, as well as the impact of a host of other regulatory,
financial, industry, and cost factors may be contributing
to California’s insufficient levels of new housing production. For example, a follow-up study analysis of
a sampling of housing project applications, statistically
weighted to reflect size, density, and location, could yield
a deeper understanding of CEQA and non-CEQA
related development challenges across the state. This
type of case study should also document the applicant’s
experience, so that cost and timingfactors attributable to
CEQA compared to other pre-development conditions
can be more thoroughly understoodin a way thatmoves
beyond the worst-case headlines.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
This work was funded by the California Association of
Environmental Professionals (AEP).
Data availability statement
The data supporting the findings of this study are available at
Janet Smith-Heimer http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2498-4529
Jessica Hitchcock http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2909-5635
BAE Urban Economics. 2016 Aug. CEQA in the 21st century:
environmental quality, economic prosperity, and sustainable development in California. Berkeley, CA: Rose
Foundation for Communities and the Environment.
Biber E, O’Neill M, Gualco-Nelson G. 2018 Feb. Getting it
right: examining the local land use entitlement process in
California to inform policy and process. Berkeley, CA:
Center for Law, Energy & Environment, University of
California Berkeley.
California Legislative Analyst‘s Office. 2015 Mar 17.
California’s high housing costs: causes and consequences.
Sacramento (CA): California Legislative Analyst‘s Office.
Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. 2019 Feb.
CEQA review of housing projects technical advisory.
Sacramento (CA): Governor’s Office of Planning and
Research. opr.ca.gov/docs/20190208-TechAdvisoryReview_of_Housing_Exemptions.pdf.
Hernandez J, Friedman D, DeHerrera SM. 2015 Aug. In the
name of the environment: litigation abuse under CEQA.
Holland and Knight. University of California, Hastings
College of the Law. https://perma.cc/SV3V-F5L2.
Landis JD, Pendall R, Olshansky R, Huang W. 1995. Fixing CEQA:
options and opportunities for reforming the California
Environmental Quality Act. California Policy Seminar.
California: University of California Berkeley.
Olshansky RB. 1996. Evaluation of the California environmental
quality act. Environmental Management. 20(1):11–23.
Planning and Conservation League Foundation and the
California League of Conservation Voters. 2005. Everyday
heroes protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the
natural areas we prize: thirty-five years of the California
environmental quality act. https://www.pcl.org/media/
Senate Environmental Quality Committee, 2017 Oct.
California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Survey FY
201112 to FY 2015/16. https://senv.senate.ca.gov/sites/
Appendix A. Survey Instrument
Respondent Information
(1) Name of Respondent: _______________________________________________________________________________________
Title of Respondent: _________________________________________________________________________________________
City or County: ____________________________________________________________________________________________
Department: ____________________________________________________________________________________________
Housing Production
(2) Please indicate how many housing project applications – for projects with 5 units or more – were subject to each of the
following environmental review processes in the years shown.
Number of Applications for Housing Projects with 5 ± Units
Additional comments/notes on data:
(3) For the projects identified in Question 2, please indicate the number of market-rate and affordable housing units contained
within those projects. Affordable housing refers to income-restricted housing serving very-low through moderate-income
households. (Fill in all relevant cells; for mixed-income projects, please separate market-rate and affordable units)
Streamlining Exemptions
Impact Report
& Specific
Housing Infill
Project Other
§15183 and
§15152; Govt
Code §65457
CA Govt
§15332 and
Streamlining Exemptions
Impact Report
& Specific
Housing Infill
Project Other
§15183 and
§15152; Govt
Code §65457
CA Govt
§15332 and
(a) Number of Market-Rate Housing Units
(b) Number of Affordable Housing Units
Additional comments/notes on data:
(4-7) Please estimate the typical or average time to complete each type of environmental review (i.e. from initial application to final
action) in your jurisdiction for housing projects of five units or more. (Select one answer for each environmental review type).
(8) Some stakeholders argue that CEQA is used intentionally to kill housing projects. This study seeks to measure this
premise. First, we will ask you how many projects and units were completely withdrawn, and then, we will ask for
reasons for withdrawal, to track primary reasons for these events.
Between 2015 and 2017, please estimate the number of housing projects and units (both market-rate and affordable) where
developers withdrew their projects completely due to CEQA? (Please provide figures below; if zero, please enter zero and
proceed to the next question. Please do not count projects that were delayed or slowed down but not clearly dead. For mixedincome projects, please separate these in the Housing Units cells, if possible).
If housing projects were withdrawn, please estimate the percent of Total Units withdrawn by primary reason (fill in percentages)
Streamlining Exemptions
Impact Report
& Specific
Housing Infill
Project Other
§15183 and
§15152; Govt
Code §65457
CA Govt
§15332 and
Negative Declaration Mitigated Negative Declaration Environmental Impact Report Streamlined Exemptions
— 0 to 3 months — 0 to 3 months — 0 to 3 months — 0 to 3 months
— 3 to 6 months — 3 to 6 months — 3 to 6 months — 3 to 6 months
— 6 to 9 months — 6 to 9 months — 6 to 9 months — 6 to 9 months
— 9 to 12 months — 9 to 12 months — 9 to 12 months — 9 to 12 months
— 12 to 18 months — 12 to 18 months — 12 to 18 months — 12 to 18 months
— 18 months to 2 years — 18 months to 2 years — 18 months to 2 years — 18 months to 2 years
— More than 2 years — More than 2 years — More than 2 years — More than 2 years
— Not Available — Not Available — Not Available — Not Available
Market-Rate Affordable Total
Number of Housing Projects Withdrawn (2015–2017)
Number of Housing Units Withdrawn (2015–2017)
Reason Withdrawn Percent of Total Units
Unavoidable adverse environmental impacts
Opposition arising through environmental review process
Non-CEQA related opposition
Developer-related reasons (bankruptcy, changed project, etc).
Other (fill in reason): ___________________________________________
Streamlined CEQA Review for 2015–2017 Period
(9) Does your jurisdiction utilize streamlining exemptions when possible? If not, please explain why streamlining is not
always used (e.g. full EIR process is elected officials preference, etc.)? ________________________________________
(10) During the 2015– 2017 study period, did your jurisdiction have the ability to streamline environmental review through
the use of exemptions due to Community Plans, Specific Plans, or Tiering (per CEQA State Guidelines §15183, §15152,
or Government Code §65457)?
— Yes
— No (please skip to next question)
If yes, how many of these Plans with streamlining exemptions did you have in place by the end of 2017? Select one answer.
— 1 plan
— 2 plans
— 3 plans
— 4 plans
— 5 or more plans
About how much (percentage) of your General Plan’s housing buildout potential (e.g., future housing production) is
covered by Community Plans (CPs) or Specific Plans (SPs) allowing for streamlined CEQA review? Select one answer.
— Less than 5% of our General Plan housing buildout is located in CP/SPs
— 5% to 20% of our General Plan housing buildout is located in CP/SPs
— 20% to 50% of our General Plan housing buildout is located in CP/SPs
— 50% to 75% of our General Plan housing buildout is located in CP/SPs
— 75% to 100% of our General Plan housing buildout is located in CP/SPs
Opinion Questions
(11) For your jurisdiction, what are the top 3 reasons that market-rate housing production is constrained? Please select up
to 3 reasons
— Lack of available sites
— Costs to build are too high (land, labor, materials, impact fees)
— Mis-matched supply and demand (e.g., developers only proposing luxury housing, etc.)
— The CEQA environmental review process
— Other aspects of the entitlement process (non-CEQA related)
— Neighborhood opposition to new development
— Political concerns about changes to the community
— Loss of Redevelopment Agency (which had powers to assemble land, provide financial subsidies, and invest in infrastructure)
— Lack of adequate infrastructure to support new development (roads, transit, schools, etc.)
— Lack of access to capital
— Other (write in): _______________________________________________________________________________________
— Market-rate housing production is not constrained in my jurisdiction
(12) For your jurisdiction, what are the top 3 reasons limiting affordable housing production? Please select up to 3 reasons
— Lack of available sites
— Costs to build are too high (land, labor, materials, impact fees)
— Mis-matched supply and demand (e.g., developers only proposing luxury housing, etc.)
— The CEQA environmental review process
— Other aspects of the entitlement process (non-CEQA related)
— Neighborhood opposition to new development
— Political concerns about changes to the community
— Loss of Redevelopment Agency (which had powers to assemble land, provide financial subsidies, and invest in infrastructure)
— Lack of adequate infrastructure to support new development (roads, transit, schools, etc.)
— Lack of affordable housing financing
— Other (write in): _______________________________________________________________________________________
— Affordable housing production is not constrained in my jurisdiction
(13) Please provide any comments you would like to make regarding how CEQA affected housing production in your
jurisdiction in the past 3 years. We are particularly interested in how CEQA affected market rate housing, and
separately how CEQA affected affordable housing.
(14) Do you think that the package of 2017 housing legislation now being implemented will affect the twin policy goals
of environmental preservation and increased housing production? (For a summary of how the 2017 housing legislation
interacts with CEQA, see: https://www.ceqadevelopments.com/2017/12/07/year-end-ceqa-legislative-and-regulatory-roundupdecember-2017)
(15) If one change could be made to CEQA to boost housing production, what would it be?
(16) Do you have any suggestions about non CEQA-related ways that your jurisdiction could increase both market rate and
affordable housing production? (e.g., streamlining other parts of the entitlement process, bring back redevelopment,
local bonds for subsidies, inclusionary programs, by-right zoning, etc.)?

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