Unions and Environmentalists Oppose Plan to Address California’s Rising Housing Costs

Everyone’s for affordable housing—except, it seems, some unions and environmentalists.

On May 18, a coalition of unions and environmental advocacy groups—including the State Building & Construction Trades Council and Natural Resources Defense Council—wrote to lawmakers to voice their opposition to a proposal by Governor Jerry Brown to encourage more building of lower-cost housing by expediting the state’s environmental impact review process.

Brown’s proposal would exempt projects planned on land zoned for high-density development from burdensome review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Note that those projects would already have had to qualify under local zoning ordinances.

Green activists are often hostile to development in general. But what’s got the unions riled up? Particularly, why would the Building Trades Council—for which more construction would mean more jobs for its members—oppose it?

The Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon explains:

Existing laws can require multiple environmental reviews, all of which can be time-consuming and costly and sometimes lead to outcomes, such as blocking bike lanes, that aren't considered Earth-friendly. The law frequently is cited as a significant barrier to increasing housing supply.

Brown has talked tough about reforming CEQA for many years. But in a recent interview with Blueprint, a magazine affiliated with UCLA, Brown seemed resigned to leaving the law as is. Environmentalists and unions are too invested, Brown said, with unions blocking changes because they use it as leverage to force developers to agree to labor-friendly hiring rules.

“The unions won’t let you because they use it as a hammer to get project labor agreements,” Brown said.

Project labor agreements (PLAs) generally impose union-like requirements on all contractors bidding on a project, union and nonunion alike, thus driving up costs. As I’ve noted:

Under a PLA, an open shop contractor could be required to employ workers from union hiring halls, acquire apprentices from union apprentice programs, and require employees to pay union dues.

Such requirements can prove especially burdensome for minority contractors, many of whom are not unionized.