The first lawsuit has been filed under California’s latest amendment to its Housing Accountability Act, alleging City of Huntington Beach illegally denied a housing development proposal, even though it complied with the zoning.
The Housing Accountability Act, passed in 1982, was amended in 2017 to greatly strengthen its enforcement standards and promote the building of affordable housing. It’s often referred to as the “anti-NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) law,” since it helps prevent developments being denied based on backlash by local residents.
City and county governments in California can face litigation if they are in violation, and the City of Huntington Beach is the first jurisdiction to be sued under this amendment.
Californians for Homeownership — a non-profit organization that fights unlawful housing policies in California — claims the city violated California’s Housing Accountability Act, since the project met all of the city’s zoning regulations. In light of the severe housing affordability crisis in California, the state legislature and governor have made new housing production a priority. Cities are now being confronted when they give in to NIMBY pressure.
The proposed project would provide 48 condominium units and a ground floor coffee shop. Five of the units would be affordable over the long term with deed restrictions. The project had been rejected by the Planning Commission. When the developer appealed to the City Council, they rejected it unanimously, despite meeting all zoning and development requirements.
The Planning Commission and City Council’s rejection reflected comments by nearby residents opposed to the new development. In letters and public comments, those opposing the project said it would increase traffic congestion and was too large for the property. The City Council cited “traffic safety” in its rejection, and the Planning Commission said that it would not be compatible with nearby buildings.
City Attorney Michael Gates said the council’s decision had nothing to do with a NIMBY mindset: “The decision was made by the council because it was a very tall project in a very small space and based on public health and safety, including emergency access and other related issues.”
Under California’s Housing Accountability Act, cities cannot close their borders to new housing development. They also cannot have rules that limit new developments just serving wealthy households.
The law requires cities to meet housing goals. They have to analyze their housing needs to serve people of all income levels. They must outline concrete actions they can take to promote more housing production. This includes actions that promote housing affordable to people with low incomes. The plan must also propose steps to reduce racial and economic segregation in the community.
In addition, the Housing Accountability Act says that cities cannot reject proposals because of NIMBY opposition. Proposals have to be evaluated on whether they meet zoning requirements and building codes. Cities must have specific, documented reasons for rejecting new housing proposals. The reasons must be based on failure to meet the zoning and building standards.
Although bordered on one side by duplexes and other less dense housing, there is a 274-unit apartment building across the street. The project would be replacing a liquor store, a defunct car wash and one residence, and the area had been a gathering place for homeless people. The proposed project would replace a blighted parcel with new homeowners, affordable units and a street-level shop. Given the size of the neighboring apartment building, it was not out of scale for the area.
The city’s plan had targeted the proposed location to be redeveloped into a walkable urban hub, with shops and multifamily housing. Matthew Gelfand, lawyer for Californians for Homeownership, said, “This project is located where the city said housing developers should be looking to build. The developer worked closely with the city to design a beautiful, zoning-compliant project. It earned the recommendation of city staff, who found that it met all of the city’s requirements.”
This is not the first time that the City of Huntington Beach has been cited for resisting new housing development. Last January, Governor Gavin Newsom directed the state to sue the city because it had not zoned enough land for housing development to meet their state goals. This was the first suit under an expanded authority for the governor to investigate compliance with the Housing Accountability Act. “Many cities are taking herculean efforts to meet this crisis head on,” Newsom said. “But some cities are refusing to do their part to address this crisis and willfully stand in violation of California law. Those cities will be held to account.”
California is the only state with a law like the Housing Accountability Act. But most states and cities provide the public opportunities to comment on project proposals. Low-income renters can make their voices heard at these forums. Affordable housing supporters at these meetings can push local governments to approve affordable housing proposals that meet all local codes and zoning requirements instead of listening to NIMBY fears.