There is a major contributing factor to California’s wildfire threat that seems to destroy more and more homes year after year that everyone seems to ignore.
It’s called the California Environmental Quality Act.
Or more precisely what CEQA has morphed into.
Since its passage in 1970 when it was signed into law by then Gov. Ronald Reagan, CEQA has been hijacked to delay, block, and extract concessions from developers attempting to build housing especially in urbanized areas.
As a result, CEQA has blocked, delayed, or greatly increased the cost of building homes. Even in somewhat more housing development friendly parts of the state away from the heavily urbanized coast it now often takes a minimum of five years for a project to go from conception to ground breaking.
That leads to five years of debt load, repetitive assessment studies, and further increases in costs that add to the housing shortage in California that the state pegs at around 3 million units.
High density projects such as apartments are even more risky. Not because the upfront time to gain approval is longer than for tract homes but because of how they are financed. It often takes another seven years after they are built for apartment complexes to start penciling out for a developer. There are very few developers positioned that can afford to play that kind of a long game hence apartments are in the greatest shortage in many areas.
Because of that, the easiest place to build housing that a larger number of Californians can afford to buy are in areas away from cities such as San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento River where the bulk of the jobs are.
It is why it was no surprise that the non-profit think tank Next 10 and the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation last week released a study showing one out of two new housing units in California are being built within areas described as “the edge of wild lands”.
That doesn’t just include forests but rolling hills, expanses of open fields, and even the desert where wildfires can be just as devastating in many areas as in the Sierra foothills.
The idea behind CEQA in 1970 was to require state and local agencies to conduct a protocol of analysis and public disclosure of a project’s environmental impacts even if it is simply adding a bike lane as the City of Manteca did 18 months ago when they did rehabilitation work on Yosemite Avenue from Cottage Avenue to Main Street.
It went one step further, though, than the National Environmental Policy Act. It requires the adoption of all feasible measures to mitigate those impacts.
Not only is “feasible” a word open to constant interpretation and subject to situational ethics but it is an effective sledge hammer that those in the “not-in-my-backyard” crowd or NIMBYs can use to either bludgeon projects to death or — if their target survives — substantially add to the cost of the development.
NIMBYs simply don’t want any more people or development where they are at. It doesn’t matter that they moved into houses that when they were built created the same impacts that they object to. Nor does it concern them that forcing housing away from cities arguably creates even more manmade negative environmental impacts due to things such a longer commute that adds to air quality and congestion issues to increasing the chance for destructive wildfires.
Underscoring that point is a study that shows 85 percent of CEQA lawsuits are filed are not by environmental advocacy groups. Just over 80 percent of CEQA lawsuits are aimed at infill projects.
CEQA — in too many cases — is not being used to protect the birds, water, air quality, or woodlands. Instead, it is being used to try and keep development — read that more housing — out of urbanized areas. In doing so it re-enforces the scarcity of houses, drives up the home values of the NIMBYs homes, and forces others to see seek housing in wildfire zones.
The end result of CEQA being hijacked as an anti-growth weapon is we now have 10 million Californians whose lives and homes are at risk from wildfires.
Do not misunderstand. CEQA has allowed California to protect many natural resources and natural treasures. But it has also played a key role in creating the need for super commutes that has led to suburbia sprawl.
The resistance to infill projects with higher density that would build housing in cities where the shortage is the most acute and the infrastructure already in place has been propped up significantly by the CEQA process.
Trying to find a middle ground is treacherous at best.
Repeated efforts by the California Legislature to mandate that cities allow housing to be built are fought tooth and nail by the well-to-do “mature” cities along the coast and nearby areas such as the Inner Bay Area and the Silicon Valley.
Meanwhile efforts by the legislature to make it harder to build in wildfire zones were vetoed in 2019 by Gov. Gavin Newsom. His reasoning was simple. He had a well-placed fear that such regulations would only make California’s housing crisis worse and accelerate the homeless crisis.
This has led to the reality California is now dealing with — roughly 50 percent of all new housing is being built in wildfire zones.
And while it is less expensive and easier to build in cities and areas far away from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and San Jose it is driving up the cost of living in wildfire zones.
The expensive commutes are now being joined by skyrocketing fire insurance.
It is becoming common for people in wildfire zones to have their insurance cancelled due to the extremely high exposure to risk and forced to take policies from insurance pools where the annual premiums run from $3,000 to $5,000 a year. Typically, that’s triple what the same exact house would pay in coverage in a city.
California is rapidly approaching a crossroads.
Either we get a handle on the major contributing factors to rising housing costs such as the CEQA process or we will be subject to even more massive wildfires and even more homeless.
That is not just hyperbole. Fifty years ago, putting out wildfires was the top priority of California firefighters. Now it is evacuating people and protecting property and then containing wildfires.
As for the homeless, we are fast approaching the day where it may not be unusual for some living on the streets to have a steady income of $31,200.
In case anyone in Sacramento who thought jacking the minimum wage up to $15 an hour would solve all of California’s woes, $31,200 is what a Californian will gross if they work 40 hours at $15 an hour.