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Housing group sues City of Whittier for violating garage conversion law

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For release:
September 11, 2019

Housing group sues City of Whittier for violating state garage conversion law

LOS ANGELES (Sept. 11) -- Californians for Homeownership, a new nonprofit organization sponsored by the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (C.A.R.) that aims to address California’s housing crisis through impact litigation, today announced that it has filed its first lawsuit against the City of Whittier, Calif. The lawsuit seeks to protect the right of every homeowner in California to develop an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) through the conversion of an existing garage, studio or other underutilized space. 

“C.A.R. has long supported affordable housing through its legislative efforts and we want to make sure that cities comply,” said C.A.R. President Jared Martin.

“State law is simple: If you own a single-family home in California and your garage can be safely converted to housing, you are allowed to convert it,” said Matthew Gelfand, the in-house litigator for the Californians for Homeownership nonprofit. “Whittier is one of a small number of cities that is refusing to comply with the state law. These cities hope that they can get away with their illegal behavior because homeowners are ill-equipped to sue. Our lawsuit sends Whittier and cities like it a clear message: No city is above the law.”

ADUs, often called “in-law units” or “casitas,” are apartment-style units built alongside single-family homes. Sometimes these units are built as new structures. Other times, they are developed through the conversion of underutilized space, such as an existing garage. These units are often used by homeowners to house relatives or caretakers, or to provide an additional source of income to help make monthly mortgage payments. 

ADUs are a key element of California’s strategy for addressing the state’s housing crisis. California has a housing deficit of 2 to 3.5 million homes, and it ranks 49th out of 50 states in the number of housing units per capita. To address the housing crisis, California needs to build homes quicker and at a lower cost than traditional approaches allow. Creating an ADU through the conversion of a garage can cost 75-90 percent less than building a single unit of new multifamily housing and can be done with much less red tape.

ADUs also are popular with homeowners and neighbors alike because they provide new housing at a low cost and without major neighborhood impacts. That’s why, in 2016, the California Legislature overhauled state law to give homeowners broad rights to develop ADUs. Cities are legally prohibited from interfering with these state-law rights.

Most California cities have embraced the new rules, and the new policy is working well in those cities. The City of Los Angeles has seen over 5,000 homeowners (about 1 percent of the total number of single-family homes in the City) apply to develop ADUs each year since the new state law went into effect. ADUs will likely account for over 5 percent of all of the residential units built in California this year, and that number is growing.

Californians for Homeownership has been investigating and monitoring local compliance with state ADU law for over a year, and its lawsuit against Whittier is a major milestone in that effort. The organization has tried to work collaboratively with cities to move toward statewide compliance with the law. This effort has been successful, with numerous cities welcoming its guidance. In the month of August alone, based on concerns raised by Californians for Homeownership, the City of Merced and the City of Vista altered their ADU policies. The City of Modesto agreed to rethink an unlawful draft ADU ordinance, and the City of Rialto abandoned a plan to enact an illegal moratorium on ADU construction. 

Litigation is an option of last resort for the organization, but Whittier forced the issue. “We chose to sue Whittier because its conduct was among the most egregious we uncovered during our investigation,” Gelfand said. State regulators agree; Whittier is one of a small handful of cities that has received a noncompliance letter from the California Department of Housing and Community Development. “We tried to convince the City to comply with the law, but after several months of discussion, Whittier City staff told us they would try their luck in court,” Gelfand said.

In the suit, Californians for Homeownership seeks an order requiring Whittier to comply with the law, as well as reimbursement for its costs and attorneys’ fees.

Californians for Homeownership is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization sponsored by the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® devoted to using legal tools to address California’s housing crisis. For too long, California’s cities have treated compliance with state and federal housing law as optional. The organization seeks to change that attitude by proactively enforcing the law, on behalf of the important public interest in having additional housing available to families at all income levels. Californians for Homeownership was established by the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (C.A.R.), and it receives financial support from C.A.R. and private donors. To make a tax-deductible charitable contribution today, visit caforhomes.org.

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