Lawsuits: Not Just for Development Opponents Anymore

Details of the "Sue the Suburbs" movement wielding a new legal tool to counteract the traditionally obstructionist methods of land use regulation in California.

2 minute read

August 6, 2019, 12:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

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Raniel Diaz / Flickr

It's impossible to talk about development opponents (sometimes referred to as NIMBYs) in California without mentioning the California Environmental Quality Act (something referred to as CEQA, for short). Now pro-development forces (sometimes referred to as YIMBYs) have their own legal tool to influence local housing policy and planning. 

Marissa Kendall details the political actions of an organization called the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) in pushing for more housing in the state.

The four-person California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, or CaRLA, has one reason for being — to sue cities that reject housing projects without a valid reason. The litigious nonprofit with YIMBY roots struck again last month, suing Los Altos after the city rejected a developer’s bid to streamline a project of 15 apartments plus ground-floor office space.

Previous lawsuits by CaRLA have challenged planning decisions and policies in the cities of San Mateo, San Francisco, Lafayette, and Los Altos, among others. Four of the nice cities sued by CaRLA have settled and approved more housing. The organization has also thrown its support behind the failed SB 50 and sponsored SB 167, the Housing Accountability Act, which aims to limit the denial of housing projects that meet all necessary local laws (more on that later).

As an example of CaRLA's work, Kendall cites the example from Los Altos:

In late July, Trauss’ group sued Los Altos over the city’s ruling that a residential and office project proposed on North Main Street did not qualify for streamlined approval under the state’s new SB 35 law. That law requires cities to expedite approval of certain residential and mixed-use projects. The city said the project didn’t have enough residential space to qualify under the law, among other issues, but the lawsuit takes issue with how that calculation was reached.

Kendall explains that CaRLA founder Sonja Trauss builds cases on the precedent set by the aforementioned Housing Accountability Act. Trauss also credits development opponents, infamously using the California Environmental Quality Act as a roadblock for development projects of all kinds, modeling the behavior of litigating development.

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