Environmental Justice

California law defines “environmental justice” as treating fairly people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to developing, adopting, implementing, and enforcing environmental laws, regulations, and policies (Gov. Code, § 65040.12, subd. (e)). Historically, environmental externalities have disproportionately harmed marginalized populations that experienced discrimination or exclusion, including racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic minorities. Environmental justice is intended to remedy disproportionate impacts of environmental hazard and health risks on these marginalized communities. Furthering that goal requires all people be meaningfully involved and equitably treated in environmental matters, especially with respect to government policy and regulation.  

Addressing pollution exposure and access to community resources is one of environmental justice’s primary components. Historic land use practices have allowed high polluting industries in areas predominantly inhabited by marginalized populations to be discriminately located, while deprioritizing community resources such as parks, schools, and adequate grocery options in the same neighborhoods. As a result, minority communities tend to have more health problems linked to environmental factors. Focused environmental justice policy can mitigate issues associated with these historic health inequalities and ensure equitable access to resources and benefits. By prioritizing environmental justice in local housing planning, public agencies can foster healthy and safe communities for all residents regardless of race, culture, or income.

In 2016, the Governor signed Senate Bill 1000 (SB 1000), which requires cities and counties with disadvantaged communities to incorporate environmental justice policies into the general plan when adopting or revising two or more elements concurrently, on or after January 1, 2018. As jurisdictions embark on their sixth cycle housing element updates, many are finding they are in the position of updating additional elements of the general plan and, therefore, are also required to address environmental justice. 

According to Government Code Section 65040.12, “environmental justice” is defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of all races, cultures, incomes, and national origins, with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” In addition, Government Code Section 65302(h) outlines the required topical components of an environmental justice element, stated below. 

  • Identify objectives and policies to reduce health risks in disadvantaged communities 
  • Reduce pollution exposure
  • Improve air quality 
  • Promote public facilities 
  • Promote food access
  • Promote safe and sanitary homes
  • Promote physical activity.

Updating the housing element, safety element, and environmental justice element concurrently presents jurisdictions with the opportunity to address intersecting topical considerations, consistency needs, and community outreach at one time, which can create a more efficient, thorough, and integrated approach as opposed to separately addressing each. Additionally, concurrent updates would synchronize the safety and housing elements on the same eight-year cycle, which could provide opportunities for future consolidation and integration efforts. 

However, recent legislation has required housing elements to incorporate new components which significantly increase the complexity and cost of preparing such plans. Furthermore, new legislation is also requiring adjustments to address new public review requirements and changes to rezoning timelines. These new requirements will require that jurisdictions consider the potential implications for schedules (e.g., housing element deadlines), community engagement efforts, and environmental review strategies. 

Environmental justice and affirmatively furthering fair housing. AB 686 (2019) requires public agencies to affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH) by taking meaningful actions, in addition to combating discrimination, that overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities. AFFH requirements require jurisdictions to describe meaningful, frequent, and ongoing community participation, consultation, and coordination that is integrated with the broader stakeholder outreach and community participation process for the overall housing element. The overlapping objectives and requirements for addressing AFFH and environmental justice provide an opportunity to align community engagement efforts, support a fuller dialogue with the community, and develop more meaningful and supportive programs and policies. 

San Joaquin Valley Experience

SB 535 Disadvantaged Communities

Under SB 535, the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) identifies disadvantaged communities, using20 indicators to create a statewide ranking of all Census tracts within California, known as the CES 3.0 score. Those tracts with higher scores have greater cumulative pollution burdens and highly vulnerable population characteristics. Designated disadvantaged communities are defined as the top 25 percent highest scoring Census tracts.  Those disadvantaged communities receive SB 535 funding for community improvement programs, including affordable housing. 

The figure below depicts the SB 535 disadvantaged communities for the San Joaquin Valley, which are present in all eight counties. Each city and county should determine if disadvantaged communities are present within their planning areas and work to address environmental justice concerns as AB 686 and SB 1000 require. Locating disadvantaged communities can also enable a public agency to determine trends in segregation, how disparities are geographically dispersed, and where community needs may be higher. The disadvantaged communities identified under SB 535 receive housing funding through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. This funding information may inform housing element strategic policy and programs.

CalEnviroScreen 4.0

There are numerous disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley with disproportional pollution burdens, as illustrated in the CalEnviroScreen map depicted below.

The San Joaquin Valley has a challenging environmental context as a major agricultural producer and part of the San Joaquin Valley air basin, raising serious air and water quality concerns. Agricultural production can harm water quality by discharging fertilizer contaminants into the groundwater via runoff. Over time, the Valley’s water supply has contended with a wide range of contaminants, including nitrates, arsenic, and pesticides. Due to geographic, topographic, meteorologic, and environmental conditions, the San Joaquin Valley air basin has particular challenges for air quality. Given the regional context, local jurisdictions should place a critical emphasis on assessing disproportionate impacts pollutant exposure has on disadvantaged communities or lower-income housing sites in their purview.

Relevant State Laws

Government Code Section 65040.12 designates OPR as the coordinating agency in State government for environmental justice programs.

Senate Bill 1000 (SB 1000), the “Planning for Healthy Communities Act”, (2016) requires cities and counties to identify environmental justice communities (called “disadvantaged communities”) within their planning area and incorporate environmental justice into their general plans if present. 

SB 1000 general plan requirements are only triggered when a jurisdiction includes disadvantaged communities and is concurrently adopting or revising two or more elements of its general plan. SB 1035 requires the safety element be revised as necessary upon each housing element or local hazard mitigation plan revision. Therefore, when updating a housing element, a jurisdiction must also generally update the safety element, triggering SB 1000 requirements. When a jurisdiction has determined that environmental justice must be addressed per SB 1000, it has two options for meeting the State’s requirements:

  • Create a new stand-alone environmental justice element as part of the general plan
  • Integrate environmental justice policies in existing general plan elements

Assembly Bill 686 (AB 686) (2018) requires environmental justice to be addressed in the housing element through the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) analysis, which must evaluate disparities in access to opportunity when analyzing potential housing sites. This includes identifying and describing disparities in environmental health and disparities in access to educational opportunities, jobs, or transportation options, and in particular considering access to opportunity for persons with disabilities. 

Senate Bill 535 (SB 535) directed 25 percent of State Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) proceeds to projects that benefit disadvantaged communities. CalEPA is responsible for identifying those communities, which are identified through CalEnviroScreen.  


HCD, OPR, Planning Integration Concepts outlines concepts for integrating various policy topics and new requirements in General Plan updates, housing element updates, or other local planning updates. The intent is to highlight opportunities that could help local agencies scope their planning efforts to meet new requirements more efficiently and effectively, and to help match integrated planning activities with grant programs or other funding opportunities that may become available.

Office of Planning and Research, Healthy and Environmentally Just Communities, is a compilation of environmental justice goals, policies, programs, and actions that have been adopted by California cities and counties. This document includes a section specifically about the Healthy Housing and Safe and Sanitary Homes General Plan requirement. https://opr.ca.gov/docs/20181120-Draft_for_public_review_example_GPG_Policy_Language.pdf

Office of the Attorney General. SB 1000 – Environmental Justice in Local Land Use Planning includes helpful resources, including letters to jurisdictions who have completed or are in the process of developing EJ goals, policies, and programs. These letters identify areas of improvement, which may be helpful in identifying common challenges in complying with SB 1000. https://oag.ca.gov/environment/sb1000#:~:text=Environmental%20justice%20seeks%20to%20correct,in%20decisions%20that%20affect%20them.

HCD , Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Data and Mapping Resources is an interactive resource from HCD to fulfill a State obligation to proactively combat discrimination and increase access to safe, affordable homes near jobs, schools, healthcare, and parks for all Californians, especially those who face barriers because of their race, sex, income, and other characteristics. In this tool, users can explore data relating to Fair Housing Enforcement, Segregation and Integration, Disparities in Access to Opportunity, Disproportionate Housing Needs, Racially/Ethnically Concentrated Areas of Poverty, and more. 

OEHHA. CalEnviroScreen 4.0 is a mapping tool that helps identify California communities that are most affected by many sources of pollution, and where people are often especially vulnerable to pollution’s effects. This data source is the standard for identifying disadvantaged communities under SB 535 and SB 1000. 

CalEnviroScreen. https://oehha.ca.gov/calenviroscreen/report/draft-calenviroscreen-40 

AFFH Data Viewer. https://affh-data-resources-cahcd.hub.arcgis.com/

SB 1000 Implementation Toolkit. https://healthyplacesindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/2017_sb1000__implementation_toolkit.pdf 


County of Ventura. Environmental Justice Cross Cutting Theme. The County of Ventura integrated environmental justice goals, policies, and programs into all of their General Plan elements as a “cross cutting theme” identified throughout the document with an “EJ” icon. By incorporating the theme throughout the entirety of the document, the County addresses the interconnectedness of environmental justice with the subsequent element themes. When the County is required to update portions of the General Plan in the future, this cross-cutting approach will allow them to concurrently update environmental justice in an integrated way.