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Know the West

California’s affordable housing contested under the guise of environmentalism

In Eureka, the California Environmental Quality Act is used to target projects that benefit low-income people.

The Northern California town of Eureka lies between ocean and redwoods. It wears signs of the many industries that shaped it: abandoned lots on a waterfront that once housed a thriving fishing industry, sawdust piles at a vacant pulp mill, dozens of cannabis businesses. In Eureka’s Old Town, Victorian-style buildings host cafes, bars, smoke shops, local art and vintage clothing. 


Between the development of off-shore wind farms and the world’s longest fiber-optic cable, a newly branded polytechnic university and year-round temperate weather, Eureka and nearby Arcata, combined population 45,000, are in a position to grow. So, in 2019, to meet state housing laws, Eureka updated its housing plan, which calls for 330 units of affordable housing — mostly for low and very low-income households — on city-owned lots, including a number of parking lots in Old Town. Local environmental advocates were pleased, saying that dense development in the town, near public transit, would protect the surrounding green space and agricultural land and reduce dependence on cars. Local business interests, however, were not happy — especially Rob Arkley II, a Eureka mortgage and real estate tycoon whose companies are collectively known as Security National. Well-known locally as a polarizing figure, Arkley recently made national headlines when a ProPublica investigation revealed that he provided free luxury accommodations to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on an Alaska fishing trip — a gift Alito never disclosed.

Arkley’s company helped fund a group called Citizens for a Better Eureka, which has sued the city four times, challenging the proposed affordable housing project. According to a press release, the group includes prominent former elected officials and business interests, some of them owners of businesses only blocks from the lots slated for development. They’re wielding an unlikely weapon: the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a landmark environmental law designed to monitor major land-use decisions to prevent environmental harm.

The first lawsuit, filed in April, claims the city failed to properly evaluate the environmental impacts of developing city-owned lots. When concerns about parking were raised early on, the city decided to swap several of the lots initially marked out by the housing plan. That change enabled subsequent CEQA challenges, with the second lawsuit, filed in May, challenging a project just blocks from Arkley’s company offices. Citizens for a Better Eureka filed two more lawsuits in early October, directed at two other proposed sites. Like the May lawsuit, these challenge Eureka’s use of CEQA exemptions designed to make affordable housing development easier.

They’re wielding an unlikely weapon: the California Environmental Quality Act, a landmark environmental law designed to monitor major land-use decisions to prevent environmental harm.

The lawsuits aren’t isolated incidents: Across California, CEQA is used to fight affordable housing projects. A recent study published by Chapman University’s law school found that from 2019-2021, almost 40% of all CEQA lawsuits targeted housing projects. Jennifer Hernandez, author of that study and an attorney at Holland & Knight’s West Coast Land Use and Environmental Group, explained that these lawsuits often hide behind veiled language, such as preserving the “character of a community.” A report she authored in 2022 for a nonprofit economic research group found that nearly half of California’s housing developments faced CEQA lawsuits in 2020.

“Once you define the environment to mean everything,” Hernandez said, “then it’s almost impossible not to find an environmental impact.”

People parked underneath the Samoa Bridge, a few blocks away from Old Town in Eureka, California.

THE CALIFORNIA Environmental Quality Act requires government agencies to evaluate potential impacts before construction begins, while making it simple for individuals or entities to sue proposed projects. Legal experts including Hernandez say its use has become twisted to block everything from affordable housing to renewable energy and municipal climate plans.

A recent study published by Chapman University’s law school found that from 2019-2021, almost 40% of all CEQA lawsuits targeted housing projects.

In Eureka, the CEQA lawsuits are hampering the city’s ability to meet its 2027 state-mandated affordable housing goals. Arkley himself has long opposed Eureka’s housing plans. In a December 2022 meeting at City Hall, Arkley clashed with city officials before storming out, according to a local news report. Later that evening, he emailed City Manager Miles Slattery.

“Little boy, don’t be so foolish as to think this is the end…we have only just begun. The City has far more to lose than we do. Change is acomin’ (sic),” read one email HCN accessed through the city archives. In a previous combative email to Slattery, Arkley wrote, “Parking is our lifeblood and critical for safety. It is much more safe to say that the city supports its homeless and low-income people who don’t work. You all deserve to live with the consequences of your actions.”

The first lawsuit filed by Citizens for a Better Eureka argued that the city’s plan to build affordable housing on parking lots would endanger the economic vitality of local businesses. The group’s website warns that reduced parking would force people to walk farther, putting them at risk of what it calls a “rising number of attacks on pedestrians.”

In a September call, however, Casey Self, a spokesperson for the group, said she was unaware of any data showing an increase in such attacks. Self works for a Tennessee-based PR firm whose clients include Citizens for a Better Eureka, the Eureka Housing for All initiative and one of Arkley’s Security National companies.

Tiffany Laffoon in a parking lot underneath the Samoa Bridge, one of the places she used to park when she was living in her car (left). Dillon Huffman, a parks and waterfront ranger for the Eureka Police Department’s Community Safety Engagement Team, after evicting a few people living along the waterfront near Old Town in Eureka (right).

“Business owners downtown have expressed concern for the safety of their employees and their patrons, (who) have to walk far away from a parking lot to get to their establishment,” she said. “There is a lot of high-speed traffic that tends to come through downtown Eureka, and there tend to be folks that are, you know, unhoused folks, I guess, that camp out on the sidewalks.”

Tiffany Laffoon does street outreach with the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction to help unhoused community members. She moved to Arcata, just north of Eureka, because it had cheaper housing than other California college towns. In her last semester at Humboldt State (now Cal Poly Humboldt), she lost her housing anyway. After she graduated in 2015, it happened again — three more times.

Laffoon said having a car was a privilege during this time. It gave her a door to lock and, with it, a sense of security. It also allowed her to continue working, which helped her gain housing again. Despite having a job, she said it usually took her five to seven months to find a new place.

“Little boy, don’t be so foolish as to think this is the end … we have only just begun. The City has far more to lose than we do. Change is acomin’.

“Sometimes people have been out there for decades, because once you become homeless,” she said, “it’s like a domino effect of difficulties that make it next to impossible to get back into housing.”

Laffoon believes that using environmental laws to fight affordable housing smacks of hypocrisy. Unhoused people on the street are blamed for littering and violence. But when low-income housing is proposed to solve the problem, the threat of “environmental impacts” is used to stop it. Environmentalist language is weaponized against Eureka’s unhoused community.

A parking lot in Old Town that the city hopes to use to develop affordable housing .

“On one hand, we’re saying homelessness is impacting the environment in a significantly negative way,” she said. “But then these folks are also trying to say that creating housing and getting these people indoors with garbage service, bathrooms and running water is also not good for the environment.”

THE PUSH-AND-PULL over affordable housing shows no sign of abating. But Eureka is moving forward with its plan to develop in Old Town. On Aug. 30, the California Strategic Growth Council awarded $30.1 million to Eureka and a housing nonprofit for the construction of 90 homes on three city-owned parking lots. In response, one of Arkley’s companies sponsored a petition for a 2024 ballot initiative — the “Eureka Housing For All” initiative — that would prevent development on the parking lots in question, unless developers preserve the existing number of parking spots and add more parking for the new units. It would also rezone a former junior high school campus, making affordable housing development on that site possible. But the city doesn’t own that land — and according to local news reports, the California Highway Patrol is already negotiating to buy it.

In Eureka, California, residents camp near a parking lot along the waterfront. The city wants to develop affordable housing on city-owned parking lots, but opponents are suing to block the development under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The project’s delay is bad news for Eureka residents in dire need of housing. In a phone call, Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a Humboldt County nonprofit, said that building on vacant or underutilized parcels within already developed areas, such as parking lots, is the best option for the environment. Wheeler expects that the Eureka area will see a “significant” population influx from people seeking more temperate weather as the climate changes. But Eureka can prepare for growth, he said, by easing the existing housing insecurity through development downtown without expanding into the surrounding forest and agricultural areas that define Humboldt County.

“CEQA was meant to protect water quality, air quality, wildlife and open space,” Wheeler said. “It’s not designed to prevent you from having to experience living in a city where houseless people live.”

Ollie Hancock is an editorial intern for High Country News reporting from Portland, Oregon. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.