3 pro-housing groups sue 11 cities, county
Advocates aim to force compliance with California's homebuilding rule
Housing advocates tired of the Bay Area's foot-dragging efforts to plan for more homes amid an intensifying housing crisis are taking matters to the courts.
On Feb. 7, three prohousing groups announced they had sued 11 cities and Santa Clara County for failing to meet a Jan. 31 deadline to submit their future homebuilding proposals to state regulators.
Advocates contend the jurisdictions have long resisted growth and are now ignoring their responsibility to prepare for significantly more housing over the next decade. The cities include Palo Alto, Cupertino, Burlingame, Daly City, Martinez, Pinole, Pleasant Hill, Richmond, Fairfax, Novato and Belvedere.
The goal of the dozen lawsuits? To force local governments to adopt housing plans — dubbed “housing elements” — that actually meet the state's strict planning requirements. And to ensure jurisdictions are subject to penalties — including losing control over local laws governing development — until they do.
“We want a judge to order the cities to adopt a compliant housing element, and have the cities acknowledge there are consequences,” said Greg Magofña, director of development and outreach with
the Oakland-based California Housing Defense Fund, one of the groups filing the lawsuits.
As of Feb. 7, just 29 of the region's 109 cities and counties had adopted the every-eight-year plans, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. And just four of those plans — from San Francisco, Emeryville, San Leandro and the city of Alameda — had been deemed in compliance by the state.
Advocates say the 12 lawsuits are just the beginning. They aim to sue even more out-of-compliance cities and counties in the coming weeks. Magofña said the three pro-housing groups will continue targeting local governments with a history of denying new homes — particularly apartments and affordable housing — and that tend to be “whiter, richer and
In addition to the California Housing Defense Fund, San Francisco-based YIMBY Law and Californians for Homeownership — a nonprofit launched by the California Association of Realtors — are behind the lawsuits.
Geoff Gillette, a spokesperson for Pleasant Hill in suburban Contra Costa County, said the city had yet to be served with the civil lawsuit. He refuted the notion that Pleasant Hill isn't making enough progress on its housing element, despite only submitting its initial draft last week.
“We've taken this very seriously,” Gillette said. “For us, it's important that we do the process right and we make sure that our community is aware that it's a transparent process.”
Gillette pointed to regulators' increased planning
expectations this eight-year cycle as a primary reason why the city's plan is late. The state is now requiring cities and counties to spell out in detail how they plan to phase in mandated reforms, such as easing restrictions on new multifamily housing, and prove that areas identified for future homes have a realistic chance of development.
“These are things we weren't going to shortcut on or rush through to meet the deadline,” Gillette said.
Another challenge for local governments: They have to prepare for significantly more housing.
By 2031, the nine-county Bay Area is on the hook for approving more than 441,000 single-family homes, apartments, townhomes and condos for people of all income levels. That's double the goal for the past eight years, representing a roughly 15% increase
in the region's total housing stock, in large part to make up for decades of failing to hit state homebuilding targets.
Some local officials and neighborhood groups say the dramatically increased goals ignore the effect new development would have on traffic, the environment and wildfire risk, among other impacts.
In a statement, Livable California, a group that aims to “foster equitable, livable communities and truly affordable housing” said it “does not believe cities should be forced into planning more than local voters deem appropriate.”
“We are in favor of local control and community planning efforts. We believe local government officials know what's best for their constituents.”
If those officials continue dragging their feet on their housing plans, advocates want them to feel the repercussions. Enter the “builder's remedy.”
The provision in state housing law could enable developers to push through projects of virtually any
size almost anywhere they please, as long as a portion of the building includes affordable units. The penalty hasn't been legally tested, so advocates are suing in part to compel a judge to clarify when jurisdictions are subject to the law.
JR Fruen, an attorney and housing advocate newly elected to the Cupertino City Council, said he believes his city is already at risk of the builder's remedy since it only recently submitted a housing element draft.
But he said with a new council majority, the city — home to Apple's headquarters and some of the most expensive home prices and rents in the country — is moving forward in earnest with its housing plan after years of “bad-faith” planning by prior councils.
Fruen hopes the lawsuit could spur even more action.
“It could be a useful reminder to some of my colleagues who might be reluctant to follow the law, or pursue an ambitious element that actually meets our housing needs, to do so,” he said.