California’s new governor is coming out firing on housing. First, Gov. Newsom’s proposed budget threatened to deprive cities of gas tax money if they don’t allow more housing to be built. And then he’s suing Orange County’s Huntington Beach, population 200,000, for lack of compliance with state housing laws.
Technically, he’s not actually filing the lawsuit. Instead, he’s referring the case to the state’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, thanks to a relatively new state law, AB 72 (Santiago, 2017), which empowers such a lawsuit to be filed over local government intransigence on housing.
Why the need for the lawsuit?
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, NIMBY influence on Huntington Beach’s city council caused the city to fall more than 400 units behind its state targets on housing, after city leaders scaled back approval of a high-density development in 2015. That proposal that would have otherwise allowed the city to comply with its housing target.
According to the state, in the three years since the rejection, the city has “taken no action to bring the housing element into compliance.” The city must now build 533 low-income housing units by the end of 2021 to meet updated state quotas.
In the old days, this lack of compliance would have been met with…nothing. There was essentially no penalty for non-compliance, and even when cities or counties complied, they often negotiated down their requirements to trivial amounts of housing or gamed the system in other ways to avoid having to make meaningful changes to their land use rules. But starting with SB 375 (Steinberg, 2008), which linked transportation funding to compliance, up through AB 72, the state has gotten more serious.
Which brings us to the lawsuit. It is a big deal, and not just for the potential impact on Huntington Beach’s land use policies, which will have to change if the suit is successful. More significantly, this lawsuit will be a wake-up call to cities across the state, motivating them to action on housing and also providing political cover for municipal leaders who know they need to do more to allow housing but are fearful (and captured by) their NIMBY constituents.
But it turns out Huntington Beach was already suing California over its housing streamlining law, SB 35 (Wiener, 2017), in a suit filed on January 17th. The lawsuit could be important for resolving a significant question about how much the state can intrude on local land use authority. And my guess is that it will not end well for Huntington Beach’s NIMBYs and their elected official allies.
Huntington Beach alleges that because it’s a “charter city” under the state constitution, SB 35 shouldn’t apply to it (and others like it).
So what’s a “charter city”?
The California Constitution allows cities to become charter cities in order to pass local laws that supersede state laws under certain conditions. Of California’s 478 cities, 108 are charter cities.
Specifically, Huntington Beach officials allege that SB 35’s housing streamlining regime interferes with their “municipal affairs” of land use decision-making, which are otherwise protected from state preemption absent certain circumstances.
As a result, the case will hinge on how the court interprets “municipal affairs,” as defined in the state constitution. As the League of California Cities helpfully describes, charter cities have sovereignty over at least these four areas of “municipal affairs” under the constitution:
- “city police force”
- “subgovernment in all or part of a city”
- “conduct of city elections”
- “the manner in which . . . municipal officers [are] elected.”
Notably, “land use” is not included in the list. And yet Huntington Beach’s attorneys allege in the complaint that their land use sovereignty should be considered a “municipal affair.” Historically, it’s been left up to the courts to determine if land use counts, and they have typically ruled that land use does in fact constitute a “municipal affair.”
But there’s a big exception: when there’s a strong state interest requiring local preemption. In this case, it’s hard to argue that the housing shortage is not a matter of serious statewide concern requiring state intervention. Furthermore, local NIMBY restrictions on development have been a central factor in the lack of production statewide, including restrictive zoning and byzantine permitting processes.
Given the overriding importance of housing production to stabilize prices across the state, my guess is that Huntington Beach leaders will have a hard time making their case in court that this housing streamlining law shouldn’t apply within their borders. And an adverse decision for them would solidify the law’s applicability to the other 107 charter cities in the state.
If they lose this fight, NIMBYs and their allies will still have a few other means to push back against state laws to boost housing production. But they will lose an important judicial avenue with an adverse decision. If so, those seeking more affordable places to live in the state will be better off as a result.
This probably won’t be the end of the lawsuits. According to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, at least four dozen other California cities also have not received state approval of their housing elements, as of the beginning of the year. Newsom is reportedly considering additional litigation against them.
So we can expect Newsom and Attorney General Becerra to be busy on housing in the coming months and beyond, ushering in a more combative era in the state’s effort to get local governments to allow new homes in their communities.
Ethan Elkind directs the climate program at UC Berkeley Law, with a joint appointment at UCLA Law. His book “Railtown” was published by the University of California Press.
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