Maureen Sedonaen

Maureen Sedonaen

It was 14 months ago when the lawsuit dropped on the mat of Habitat for Humanity’s head office. Reading through it, it was clear that our newest project to build 20 affordable family homes in San Mateo County had to be stopped. It was in the crosshairs of local opponents and was heading to court.

Just hours before, the mood was one of excitement, hope and possibility. The entire Habitat family was thrilled to be building more homes in Redwood City and proud to have received wide community support. Only one month earlier, the City Council had unanimously approved the project after hearing from a room full of neighbors who were fully supportive of the need for more affordable homes. We were set to move forward.

The lawsuit cited a 1970s-era law, the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which lets virtually anyone stop any project, at any time, simply by citing environmental concerns. The claims made were absurd because our environmental impact plans had already been meticulously reviewed and approved.

It was the first time we had been hit by a CEQA lawsuit but, as I spoke with fellow developers, I learned it was a common occurrence for them. They frequently could not afford the extensive delays and escalating costs associated with fighting even a completely baseless lawsuit. Projects are abandoned, or significantly curtailed, dealing another blow to our region’s ability to build more affordable homes at a time of extreme crisis.

So pervasive is the threat of legal action — that can come at any moment and on the flimsiest of pretexts — many developers forgo opportunities to build altogether. Use of CEQA in this way worsens the Bay Area’s housing crisis and also perpetuates land use segregation by race and class.

Now more than a year later, and with the trial date looming, the case has been settled and the building can proceed. But at what price? Quite apart from the seven figure increase in costs caused by the delay, 20 families have had their chance to move into high quality new homes delayed by more than a year.

In a sense we were lucky. Because of the strong support of Habitat donors — and the invaluable pro-bono counsel of local law firm Holland and Knight — we could go toe to toe with our opponents. I made it clear that we were committed to Redwood City and to local families. We would not give up or be ground down. We are called to our mission on a higher purpose: to build strong families and communities.

It was this commitment that prevailed and we resolved this before going to court.

Full debate is essential to development. Often it can be a lengthy process and sometimes it can be difficult. But it is invaluable because, when agreed, a project commands wide community support and can move forward with confidence. But the cynical way in which affordable housing can be held to ransom by abuse of the CEQA law is unfair and must be revised.

We want an end to duplicative CEQA lawsuits relating to plans that have already completed the environmental review process and received approvals. In fact, we urge the California Legislature to restrict the use of CEQA to those projects that actually could cause harm to the natural environment or public health. We believe those who file should be required to pay costs on frivolous and unwarranted CEQA suits if they lose their cases.

Then we can strike the right balance between protecting our environment and getting housing built for our most essential workers who are being forced out of our region. Because of our supporters — and the resolute backing of leaders in Redwood City — 20 families won’t be displaced from our community, 20 families will be able to save for their futures and 20 families will be raising their children with confidence. Twenty families can call Redwood City, home.

Maureen Sedonaen is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco.

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(7) comments

jameslee

If we want to talk about "homeowner groups, NIMBYs, and malcontents" supposedly weaponizing CEQA, lets talk about how real estate lobbying groups, YIMBYs, and developers have been teaming up in recent years to weaponize a naturally progressive issue (the genuine need for more affordable housing) in order to water down landmark, important pieces of environmental legislation as part of a for-profit agenda.

I feel for Habitat for Humanity, but in some cases the reverse of their situation has occurred, in that people have used CEQA lawsuits as an attempt to STOP the replacement of affordable housing with larger, upscale housing that few but the upper class can afford. So while CEQA may not have worked in H4H's favor in this instance, it can be used to protect the stock of affordable housing units in a community, even if that wouldn't be the grounds for filing CEQA lawsuit itself, but just a side consequence of a successful suit.

Fred Sahakian

For the past 5 years, I have studied CEQA and its impact on non-environmental projects, and it is a problematic piece of legislation that can be used for non-environmental agendas. For those who wish to change CEQA and have it focus more on environmental concerns (as originally intended), the conversation has to be constant and there needs to be more diverse voices involved. Most of the time it seems like it is just land developers that speak up about CEQA (especially during economic downturns) and want change, but there are many non-profits such as religious organizations that have also faced CEQA litigation, and lost. The voices need to join together somehow and speak up.

vincent wei

Truth about the matter.......CEQA has been used in California mainly by environmentalist groups ever since it's inception. In fact, the environmental groups were the basic authors of CEQA, including the Sierra Club, Green Belt Alliance, Committee for Green Foothills and the California Coastal Commission.

Eaadams

As with all things the people who "mainly" use something aren't the ones who ruin it for the rest of us. CEQA has repeatedly been used as a hammer against affordable housing and schools. NIMBY's use it to stop, delay and obfuscate issues. Organized labor uses it to greenmail projects into excluding merit based contractors from projects. CEQA needs massive reform.

Milly

Note that the author isn't saying "abolish CEQA", just scale it back to what it was intended for: projects that "cause harm to the natural environment or public health".

JordanG

You're right, Vincent: environmental groups have used CEQA to pursue the noble goal of preserving open space. Unfortunately, homeowner groups, NIMBYs and malcontents have weaponized CEQA in attempts to delay and block housing of all shapes and sizes. That needs to be corrected.

Eaadams

^ Yes

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