Local government bureaucracy behind California’s housing crisis, study finds

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Local government policies and regulations may have had a greater hand in the California housing crisis than California environmental law, according to a new Berkeley Law study.

In the study by Berkeley Law professor Eric Biber, associate research scientist Moira O’Neill and Berkeley Law student Giulia Gualco-Nelson, five Bay Area cities are analyzed: San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Redwood City and Palo Alto. The five cities were chosen because of their relatively comparable economies and housing scenes and because they all are subject to “complex local land use ordinances.”

According to Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Program at Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, the paper seeks to shed light on California’s severe housing shortage, which has created economic and environmental problems in the state.

Elkind said one of the main targets of blame for the housing crisis is often environmental policies such as the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, because of how it is said to delay housing allocation and procedure. The study, however, finds that the true problem is not laws like CEQA, but rather local government policies, according to Elkind.

“(The authors) find that local zoning rules and zoning approval processes are more impactful than CEQA,” said Ted Lamm, research fellow at Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. “Reforming CEQA might not be the most effective way to promote increased development, but modifying zoning rules is more important.”

The study finds that discretionary review, which consists of mechanisms such as zoning and permits, is applied often redundantly. Additionally, in part because many large projects do not require Environmental Impact Reports, local processes are the main determinant of the entitlement timeline. This results in variability among jurisdictions in terms of timelines, as well as the total number of units, number of units per capita and density of dwellings that may be built in a given jurisdiction.

Thus, for policymakers who want to understand the California housing crisis in more detail and make changes, Gualco-Nelson and O’Neill said data organization might be key.

“To figure out how a project gets entitled, you need information from current parcel use to tax records to information from the City Council about when the meetings were held,” Gualco-Nelson said. “Now, all those live in different places. So it’s very difficult for someone to figure out how to navigate the system and get that micro-level data.”

Determining the length of each process would allow affordable housing developers to direct necessary funding for the entitlement process, according to the report.

According to the report, “Something the state could do now would be to provide guidance to jurisdictions on how to provide better access to accurate project-specific data on land use approvals, and require all jurisdictions to maintain relevant data in a central repository.”

The study suggests that changes in local processes like zoning measures might be prudent, and the environmental policies that the study finds pose little harm to housing are appreciated by some in government. Though the study has only covered five cities thus far, O’Neill said she would generally caution against blaming environmental review for entitlement issues.

“This is my personal perspective, but I support a strong CEQA program,” said Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board Chair Igor Tregub. “Particularly at a time when the Trump administration is starting to roll back environmental protections, it’s very good that we have a robust environmental system.”

Contact Sri Medicherla at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sri_medicherla.