By Jeff Montejano
CEO, Building Industry Association of Southern California
As California struggles to emerge from the economic and social malaise brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic, our elected leaders will need to place a renewed focus on a variety of pressing issues, many of which existed long before the outbreak.
Chief among these is the need to address California’s dire lack of attainable housing. While there is no single answer to fixing the state’s housing crisis, several critical changes need to occur as to how our elected leaders address the need for more housing.
To start, there must be a concerted effort by Governor Newsom and the state legislature to mend – not end – the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Signed into law over fifty years ago, CEQA was originally intended to ensure that environmental protections were instituted with new development projects like infrastructure and housing.
Over the decades, CEQA has evolved from a tool into a trap, entangling new housing proposals throughout the state. Talk to any homebuilder, and they will likely tell you that at some time or another, they have been the target of a frivolous CEQA lawsuit aimed at stopping the construction of new housing.
Despite proclamations from both sides of the aisle, we have yet to see any meaningful changes to CEQA. Now is the time for Governor Newsom to bring all sides together and insist upon consensus reform.
Sacramento also needs to rethink the state’s recently enacted Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) regulations. VMT’s onerous mandates are rooted in a misguided philosophy that California’s greenhouse gas emission goals can be met by forcing people out of their cars by compelling the construction of more expensive high-density housing close to workplaces and public transit. With the continuing rise of remote working, VMT’s outdated approach to housing ignores the reality that an increasing number of workers are moving out of cities and into suburban and rural areas.
Because VMT regulations essentially impose a fee on new home construction, homebuilders are now forced to comply with mandates that are outdated and financially unrealistic. The state needs to hit pause and work with private and public sector stakeholders to ensure that VMT’s requirements reflect California’s new economic and social realities.
Finally, our local elected officials must demonstrate a greater will to make politically courageous decisions when considering new housing opportunities in their community. A recent report by the Southern California News Group found that 97% of all California cities and counties were behind in their state-mandated housing goals.
Among the most common reasons local municipalities fail to approve new housing is the intense political pressure applied by local NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) groups. Well-organized and well-financed, NIMBY forces are relentless in their efforts to stop the construction of new homes in their community.
This was the recent case in the Southern California city of La Habra where heavy NIMBY opposition resulted in the city council’s decision to deny a proposal to build 450 new homes for residents across different income levels. In addition, this irrational assault on new housing effectively caused the forfeiture of millions of dollars in new funding for city services and local schools while also denying the community of new park and open space. City and county elected officials must do what’s best for all residents, not only a select few.
If achieving measurable progress on housing affordability is a priority, homebuilders must be allowed to operate in a regulatory and political environment where housing construction can occur. Just as local and state leaders have contributed to the housing crisis, they both play a role in solving it.
Jeff Montejano serves as CEO of the Building Industry Association of Southern California. The Building Industry Association of Southern California is a leading advocate for thousands of building industry leaders.