Let's talk about environmental review.

This is going to be a primer on the California Environmental Quality Act for non-experts and why it makes it so hard to build new housing. Though I am a lawyer, please don't treat this as legal advice - consult your own attorney if you have CEQA questions.

I'm also going to talk about an empty porn theater. The two are related. Trust me.

A lot of people have the wrong impression that if you want to build a new building somewhere, it's straightforward. Just submit the plans to City Hall, and if the plans match the building code and the zoning law, you can build the thing you want. People think this way, because that's what happens when you want to add another bedroom to your house, or expand the kitchen.

New housing doesn't work this way in places like California.

In California, when you send in your plans for a new apartment building, a city inspector checks the plans against the local zoning law and the building code. But that's only the first step. It's almost guaranteed that your plans will require environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA requires environmental impacts to be studied and mitigated - even if it otherwise meets the legal requirements.

Sounds good, right? After all, who could be against environmental review?

The devil is in the details. Because there's no simplified CEQA process if you just want to replace one old, decrepit building with 3 stories of apartments. Instead, ordinary apartments are subject to the same micromanaged review as an oil refinery. It means it takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars for lawyers, architects and engineers to analyze, in excruciating detail, what'll happen if you want to tear down an empty porn theater built in 1947.

Here's the porn theater I'm talking about, located in La Puente, CA, 20 miles southwest of Downtown LA. And here's the environmental impact report that was required to tear down the derelict porn theater and build three stories of apartments. It's a dense technical document, over a hundred pages long, that I'd ballpark at about a hundred fifty thousand dollars to prepare.

But the environmental impact report isn't the end of the story. City councils aren't actually required to approve the environmental report. In practice, city councils can "study" the environmental effects as long as they want, and can schedule loads of public hearings to rouse opposition. And even if a project gets a friendly reception, any geek off the street can sue and delay the project

. A lawsuit means years of potential delay, and huge litigation costs. Unsurprisingly, this long, intrusive process promotes all kinds of bad behavior.
These bad actors include:

  • Crooked city councilmen who want bribes. Jose Huizar, Downtown LA's city councilman, just got arrested for that.
  • Construction unions who want developers to pay union wages. This is a pretty common practice.
  • Busybody neighbors who benefit from a housing shortage.
  • Historical preservationists who suddenly discovered just how much historical import there is in a random porn theater that's sit empty since George W. Bush was President.
  • Opportunistic leftists who like to whine about how capitalism is bad and how we need "real affordable housing." (There are more of these in Berkeley and Marin up north than in SoCal, but you know who these guys are.)

See the common thread here?

No one actually gives a shit about the environmental impact of a three-story apartment building. It's all kabuki theater.

Now, this saga over the La Puente porn theater ended OK. In the end the City Council approved the permits, the theater got torn down, and construction on the new apartment building is ongoing. But the story of the porn theater in La Puente is the story of every community in California.

The public hearings, the risk of an arbitrary city council veto, the exhaustive environmental review - that's enough to deter most businessmen from doing something good for a community, like tearing down an empty porn theater and building new apartments. One three-story apartment building might not matter much. But when you replicate that process in every community in California, you have a real crisis. Because the big urban condo projects in downtown L.A. just aren't enough to meet the demand.

This arcane, stifling bureaucracy enables all the bad actors who want less new housing and more empty porn theaters. And when it gets replicated across the state, that's how we end up where we are now.

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