New Housing Law Empowers Renters Group to Sue Cities that Deny New Construction

The California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, unlike other renters groups, sees increased housing production as key to bringing down rents. It is enforcing the Housing Accountability Act in cities that arbitrarily deny new construction.

May 2, 2018, 8:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Los Angeles High Rise Construction

Kit Leong / Shutterstock

Last year, a property owner submitted plans for a 10-unit, 4-story condominium in the city of San Mateo along the county's busiest and most frequent transit line, the ECR, named for El Camino Real, aka State Route 82, that runs through the entire county, connecting to San Francisco in the north and San Jose to the south. [See SamTrans map and schedule. The site is also adjacent to a bus stop on the busy route.

Nearby single-family homeowners objected, even though the property at 4 West Santa Inez Avenue is zoned multi-family residential, neighbors objected, claiming it was out-of-character and would stress the parking supply. The city council caved to their objections, voting "3-1 to deny the applicant’s appeal of the commission’s fall decision, with Mayor Rick Bonilla voting against the denial," reported Anna Schuessler for the San Mateo Daily Journal on Feb 7, 2018.

Though San Mateo residents raised questions about how a 10-unit condominium project proposed for El Camino Real would fit within its surrounding neighborhood and affect traffic, the City Council’s decision to uphold the Planning Commission’s denial of the project [Feb. 5] ultimately came down to distance between a one-story home adjacent to the property and the four-story building included in the plans.

Similar housing outcomes play out throughout coastal California, particularly in affluent cities with active citizenry intent on preserving what is often called "neighborhood character or charm" in spite of a dire need for more housing. However, these denials of multi-family housing on appropriately zoned land may also be a violation of housing law.

On April 26, the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) "filed a lawsuit against the City of San Mateo, alleging that the city violated the state’s Housing Accountability Act with an unlawful denial of a housing project," writes Victoria Fierce.

Ten homes may not seem like the solution to the state’s housing shortage, but every every home counts. The remedy for the housing shortage will be the sum of many individual new housing units. In the struggle to secure the human right of housing for all, we must use every means available to us.

Actually, 10 units may be a lot for CaRLA considering that their lawsuit against the City of Sausalito, was for one unit, reports Fierce on the positive outcome for the group on April 20.

The City of Sausalito denied the project on the grounds that the project is “out of scale with the village like quality of Sausalito”. We alleged that the city’s reason for denial of the project was based on subjective criteria, which is a violation of the Housing Accountability Act’s requirement that projects can only be denied for objective, legally-defined criteria; the organization prevailed as the city saw no alternative but to settle.

Ten units in San Mateo, one in Sausalito, and three in Berkeley won't affect the state's housing crisis, but the lawsuits send a message to city councils reluctant to add density to single-family neighborhoods.  And there are financial consequences, adds Fierce on the Sausalito settlement:

We’ve recouped attorneys’ fees as part of the settlement, putting other cities on notice that there are material consequences to violating state housing law. As CaRLA continues to enforce state housing law, cities across the state are beginning to see the writing on the wall and opting to avoid lengthy trials by reversing these unlawful denials early on, further expediting much needed additions to the state’s housing supply.

The Housing Accountability Act, also known as the anti-NIMBY law, was strengthened last year with the passage of SB 167, authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). It was co-sponsored by CaRLA and the California Apartment Association and opposed by the California Chapter of the American Planning Association.

CaRLA, a 501(c)(3) organization, acts as the legal advocacy arm of the YIMBY Party

Alternative perspective

For an alternative perspective on CaRLA, SB 167 and AB 1515 by Assemblymember Tom Daly (D-Anaheim), which also strengthens the Housing Accountability Act, read "Little-known Yimby-developer bills will have big impact on local planning," in 48 Hills, "San Francisco and the Bay Area’s independent, progressive news and culture site, by Zelda Bronstein.

Thursday, April 26, 2018 in California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund

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