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April 20, 2022
Housing group sues six Southern California cities over failure to plan for housing.
LOS ANGELES (April 20) – Californians for Homeownership, a 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 lawsuits against six Southern California cities for violating state laws that require cities to plan for the development of housing. The cities are Bradbury, La Habra Heights, Laguna Hills, Manhattan Beach, South Pasadena and Vernon.
“The housing element process is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to create robust housing plans across the state,” said C.A.R. President Otto Catrina. “The goal of these lawsuits is to fundamentally change the way that California’s cities and counties approach their housing planning obligations. For far too long, cities have treated compliance with these laws as optional, and we hope to put an end to that approach.”
The litigation aims to enforce the requirements of California’s RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) and housing element laws. Under the RHNA system, the state and local governments work together to identify regional housing needs and distribute them among a region’s cities and counties. Each city and county must then develop a “housing element” — a component of the city’s general plan that identifies sites available for future housing development sufficient to meet the city’s RHNA allocation. If the city cannot identify adequate sites, it must change its zoning to allow additional housing development.
Housing elements in the Southern California region were due on October 15, 2021. Some Southern California cities embraced the process, but all six cities targeted for litigation missed the state law deadline.
“Three of the cities we are suing had not even submitted a draft housing element for review by state regulators when we approached them in March — something they were required to do by August of last year,” said Matthew Gelfand, the in-house litigator for the nonprofit. “Time is of the essence because we are already more than six months into the eight-year period that these cities are planning for. Developers are waiting for these plans to be finalized, and every month that these cities delay is another month working with outdated land use rules that make it hard to develop housing.”
Enforcing these laws has been a major focus for the organization over the last year, and it has approached around 50 cities in Southern California to discuss their compliance with the law. Later in 2022, the focus will shift to the Bay Area and other parts of the state, as those regions complete their housing elements. The nonprofit typically offers to forgo litigation against cities that are willing to acknowledge the state law penalties for failing to adopt a housing element.
The organization’s lawsuits against Bradbury, La Habra Heights, Laguna Hills, South Pasadena and Vernon fault those cities for failing to adopt updated housing elements by the state mandated deadline. These cities were chosen for being far behind their peers in the housing element process, having demonstrated a hostility toward adequate housing planning or both.
In prior housing element cycles, without litigation, some cities have allowed the process of developing their housing elements to drag on for years after the state law deadlines. For example, the City of La Habra Heights did not develop its 2013 housing element until 2020. Many Southern California cities have prioritized other non-urgent matters, including implementing policies to limit housing production, while putting off the housing element process.
“There are some harsh penalties for failing to adopt a housing element under state law,” Gelfand said. “These penalties are designed to encourage cities to prioritize planning for housing, which is a critical statewide issue, over less critical work.”
The organization’s lawsuit against the City of Manhattan Beach focuses on problems with the city’s recently adopted housing element. State law requires housing elements to identify sites that are likely to be developed into housing over an eight-year planning period — by 2029. For sites with existing uses, such as shopping centers or office buildings, cities must provide evidence that the existing uses will be discontinued during that time. The requirements are even stricter for sites identified for lower-income housing.
Manhattan Beach’s housing element relies on a number of sites that have little or no chance of being redeveloped by 2029. For example, the city included the Manhattan Country Club as a site likely to be developed with 149 low-income housing units. But the Club was purchased in 2017 by a national operator for $73 million, and the city has not cited any reason to believe that it is going to close any time soon. With these inappropriate sites excluded, the city’s housing element comes nowhere near satisfying its RHNA allocation.
Each lawsuit seeks an order requiring the city to adopt a compliant housing element on an expedited basis, as well as a judicial declaration that the city is subject to certain state law penalties for being out of compliance. Among other penalties, cities without a compliant housing element are prohibited from using their ordinary zoning rules to reject certain types of housing developments. The court also has the discretion to control aspects of a city’s land use approvals — for example, halting the issuance of all non-residential building permits or judicially approving housing development projects that have been held up by a city.
The lawsuits are:
Californians for Homeownership v. City of Bradbury, Los Angeles County Superior Court Case No. 22STCP01381.
Californians for Homeownership v. City of La Habra Heights, Los Angeles County Superior Court Case No. 22STCP01394.
Californians for Homeownership v. City of Laguna Hills, Orange County Superior Court Case No. 30-2022-01255365-CU-WM-CJC.
Californians for Homeownership v. City of Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles County Superior Court Case No. 22STCP01417.
Californians for Homeownership v. City of South Pasadena, Los Angeles County Superior Court Case No. 22STCP01388.
Californians for Homeownership v. City of Vernon, Los Angeles County Superior Court Case No. 22STCP01397.
Copies of the filings are available at caforhomes.org/housingelements.
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.