Op-Ed: New battlegrounds emerge in California’s endless housing conflict

Casa Sueños, an affordable housing complex at 3500 E. 12th St. in Oakland on Aug 7, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

By Dan Walters | CalMatters Commentary

At least once a month a new front opens in California’s political guerrilla war between state and local officials over housing.

The Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom have issued a steady stream of laws and regulations aimed at forcing the state’s nearly 500 cities to embrace housing development, particularly apartments for low-income families.

Communities that shun such housing, saying it degrades the bucolic ambience of their neighborhoods, respond by dragging their feet, challenging the state’s authority in court or fashioning new barriers. The state counters with threats to cut off funds for public works, more laws that supersede local land use authority, and threats of lawsuits.

Two such clashes have surfaced in recent weeks: one involving Portola Valley, a very affluent village on the San Francisco Peninsula, the other a coalition of cities governed by their own charters, rather than state law.

In January, Portola Valley became one of the first Bay Area communities to have its “housing element” – a plan for meeting housing quotas – approved by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

By late March, Portola Valley became the first California city to have its housing element decertified. State officials said the town’s council had failed to make the necessary changes in zoning to accommodate the 253 housing units in its quota.

Portola Valley’s wealthy residents and officials obviously don’t want affordable apartments that would alter its rustic atmosphere, but if they continue to stall they run the risk of triggering the so-called “builder’s remedy,” under which projects could proceed without local approval.

Portola Valley officialdom says it intends to comply with the state’s demands, but it’s still uncertain whether apartments will actually be built, given land costs and other financial hurdles. Moreover, many neighborhoods have homeowner associations that impose their own rules on what can be built and could try to thwart multi-family projects.

The second battleground is the Los Angeles County Superior Court where Judge Curtis Kin ruled this month that one of the Legislature’s most powerful laws aimed at forcing cities to accept more housing does not apply to cities with their own charters.

Senate Bill 9, passed in 2021, effectively ended single-family zoning in California, allowing up to four units of housing to be built on a residential parcel. Five charter cities in Southern California – Redondo Beach, Carson, Torrance, Whittier and Del Mar – joined forces to sue the state, contending that the law does not apply to them.

Judge Kin agreed, ruling that while SB 9 purports to encourage housing affordable to low- and moderate-income families, it does not specifically limit its impact to that category and therefore cannot supersede land use powers of charter cities.

“Because the provisions of SB 9 are not reasonably related and sufficiently narrowly tailored to the explicit stated purpose of that legislation – namely, to ensure access to affordable housing – SB 9 cannot stand,” Kin wrote.

While California has nearly 500 incorporated cities, most operate as “general law” municipalities governed by state law, but about a quarter of them, mostly larger cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego, have their own charters. State laws, such as SB 9, can be applied to them only if the state declares a specific and overriding purpose.

The state could – and probably will – appeal Kin’s ruling, but the Legislature could also refine the law to make it more specific, either limiting its impact to low-income projects or changing its stated purpose to increase all kinds of housing.

It’s, therefore, likely that the cities that sued and other charter cities will only temporarily benefit, if at all, from Kin’s ruling. It’s just another skirmish in the never-ending war.

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CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to Commentary.

Op-Ed’s are written by community members, not representatives of edhat. The views and opinions expressed in Op-Ed articles are those of the author’s.
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Written by CalMatters

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  1. This MANDATED housing is going in whether you and your town like it or not… It matters NOT what the Environmental Impacts are, traffic congestion, limitations on water or sewer infrastructure, housing density concerns or surrounding/existing homeowner / property zoning concerns… IF the town/jurisidiction does not follow Sacramento’s (Gavin Newsom’s) mandates, the politicans voted in a clause called “BUILDERS REMEDY”, whereas there will be virtually no oversight or input by the local jurisdiction affected… This is the result of a one-party-State without checks and balances and it is having a profound impact on every City/town/jurisdiction in California.

    • These laws are aimed at fighting NIMBYism, the attitude of opposing new construction in one’s neighborhood. Many people complain about the high cost of housing and rent but resist new housing projects. California faces a housing crisis, and building more homes is crucial. Change is inevitable, and we can either accept it and contribute to shaping it or resist it entirely and end up with the Builders Remedy, where we have no say whatsoever!

      • These days, everything is described as a “crisis.” Housing has always been in short supply in CA because of geography, climate, jobs and now illegal immigration. Existing government laws and controls have a lot to do with the cost of new construction. Making more laws in an attempt to control even more can only make a bad situation worse.

      • That may be the intent, but “one size fits all” is just wrong. We are a desirable place to live, and we depend on tourism. That means that people will always want to live here, and our essential workers get squeezed out. All the new market-rate housing only exacerbates the situation by creating the need for more low-wage workers while the supply of affordable housing keeps going down. We have the right to evaluate the impacts of growth decisions locally and to act accordingly – as the judge correctly ruled since we are a charter city. Sadly, we have surrendered that right to state pols who apparently couldn’t care less about local impacts (thanks to local surrogates with visions of Sacramento and Washington dancing in their heads.)

        • What? Are you saying that more housing is the cause of higher rents and more costly homes? Did you read the article? That court ruling will be appealed, and the state legislature can easily correct the law.

  2. As a charter city which has long placed a value on local planning, Santa Barbara should have been a party to this lawsuit, but sadly our local officials are part of the problem. They simply won’t fight the mandates because they’re part of the state party “machine” that has so effectively destroyed community planning. It’s time to get the parties out of local “non-partisan” races! They’re so focused on social issues that extend far beyond our city limits that they run a budget deficit without filling a single pothole! Bring back local government!

        • RUBAIYAT – why not? It’s not at the expense of inland cities, it’s in spite of the “exodus” from inland, mostly Republican, cities. Many from the right are leaving California for political and economic reasons.

          Despite those fleeing, we still have a HUGE influx of people moving here and wanting desirable locations on the coast. ALSO, where are our major cities, aside from Sacramento? SF, LA, San Diego, are all along the coast and attract people with the vast amount of jobs.

          It’s not about being fair or whatever you seem to be concerned about, it’s about reality. More people live on the coast and those people need housing so they can work in the towns they’ve moved to or already live in.

          Problem is, we do NOT need housing instead of open land. Put all this housing where it belongs – in empty buildings, malls, etc instead of building more hotels.

    • The housing shortage was estimated to be 3-4 million units in 2017. Now, it’s more like 2 to 2.5 million. (Source: google, various articles.) So, I guess it’s better, but we still need millions more people to leave the state to have enough housing units.

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