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Wednesday, May 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California cities face flurry of lawsuits over missed housing mandate

Pro-housing nonprofits say many cities across coastal California have violated state laws with their housing plans — or failed to submit any plans at all.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A coalition of housing advocates accuse at least a dozen cities across the San Francisco Bay Area of failing to meet state deadlines to submit plans for housing. 

Cities across California have raced to meet the state’s Jan. 31 deadline to adopt “Housing Element” plans. The plans are supposed to illustrate how each city will meet the state's housing requirements and prove compliance with state laws in order to preserve local land use control and compete for state-issued affordable housing grants. All cities face unprecedented pressure to produce thousands of housing units within the next decade.

However, Californians for Homeownership, California Housing Defense Fund and YIMBY Law have filed 12 lawsuits in Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Marin and San Mateo counties, accusing cities and counties of failing to finish their housing plans in time. Others that submitted their housing plans did so without proper state review, according to the plaintiffs, or crafted plans that may not meet housing needs of their region. Many of these cities saw average rents and home sale prices rank among the most expensive in the state.

“There’s no excuse for these cities to be in violation of state law,” said Sonja Trauss, YIMBY Law executive director. “Cities have had years to plan for this. They’ve also received resources and feedback from us, our volunteer watchdogs, and Housing and Community Development. These cities are trying to push the responsibility onto other communities and avoid having to welcome new neighbors. It’s time for them to be held accountable.“

The coalition says this is the first round of what will likely be “many rounds of judicial review” for noncompliance with state housing law in the Bay Area. All of the lawsuits focus on cities with a long history of exclusionary housing practices, as well as those with “unlawful” housing plans or which have made little progress in developing their draft housing plans.

One example is the North Bay suburb Richmond, which the coalition says adopted a housing plan without following the required state draft review process. 

“As a result of the housing crisis, younger Californians are being denied the opportunities for housing security and homeownership that were afforded to previous generations," the plaintiffs say in their complaint against Richmond. “Many middle and lower income families devote more than half of their take-home pay to rent, leaving little money to pay for transportation, food, health care and other necessities. Unable to set aside money for savings, these families are also at risk of losing their housing in the event of a personal financial setback. Indeed, housing insecurity in California has led to a mounting homelessness crisis.”

The plaintiffs also sued Santa Clara County, saying the failures of several cities like Palo Alto to submit a housing plan to the state by deadline reflect back on the entire county. 

“It is unacceptable that most Bay Area cities have failed to come up with plans to address the ongoing housing crises,” said Housing Defense Fund executive director Dylan Casey. “We cannot begin to fix our housing problems when local governments respond to clear state directives by dragging their feet and looking for loopholes to avoid their responsibilities to provide needed housing growth.”

The plaintiffs seek to establish that these cities and counties are subject to the “builder’s remedy,” a provision in the state’s Housing Accountability Act which exempts mixed- and moderate-income projects from local development standards. Many of the cities have local standards that have “historically made it difficult to build housing developments, especially those that include housing for lower-income households.” the plaintiffs say. 

“These new lawsuits build on our work to enforce housing element law in Southern California, where we filed lawsuits against nine cities starting in April 2022,” said Matthew Gelfand, counsel at Californians for Homeownership. 

“The Bay Area’s cities and counties had over 15 months longer to develop housing elements, and many started their process over a year ago," he said. "But they let the process get bogged down as the deadline approached, often as the result of opposition by anti-housing activists. These lawsuits will help ensure that these cities and counties face appropriate consequences.”

The plaintiffs want judges to require cities that have not submitted a housing plan to immediately adopt one, and declare that they have not complied with state law.

They also seek court orders barring cities from using provisions to refuse to approve housing developments with at least 20% of units sold or rented to lower income-households or 100% sold or rented to moderate-income households — or render projects infeasible to develop for very low- to moderate-income households. The state defines moderate income as earning 80-120% of the median household income, which varies by city.

The three nonprofits say they have a common interest in ending the Bay Area housing shortage and intend to file more lawsuits in the coming weeks. So far, cities being sued by at least one of the nonprofits include Fairfax, Daly City, Cupertino, Pleasant Hill and Novato. 

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Categories / Economy, Government, Regional

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