By David M. Greenwald
Oakland, CA – In 2017 the California Legislature amended the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) in order to strengthen the statute and increase access to affordable housing.
“California has a housing supply and affordability crisis of historic proportions,” the legislature said. This “despite the fact that, for decades, the Legislature has enacted numerous statutes intended to significantly increase the approval, development, and affordability of housing for all income levels.”
After the city of San Mateo denied an application to build a ten-unit apartment building, petitioners California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, Victoria Fierce, and John Moon (collectively, CaRLA) sought a writ of administrative mandamus seeking to compel the project’s approval.
On Friday, the court ruled, “The design guideline the City invoked as part of its reason for rejecting this housing development is not ‘objective’ for purposes of the HAA, and so cannot support the City’s decision to reject the project.”
The court added “because the HAA checks municipal authority only as necessary to further the statewide interest in new housing development, the HAA does not infringe on the City’s right to home rule.”
On Monday, AG Rob Bonta applauded the ruling, which upheld the constitutionality and statewide applicability of the HAA.
The HAA protects housing availability and affordability by imposing limits on the ability of cities to reject proposals for housing developments that otherwise satisfy general plan and zoning requirements.
The California Department of Justice intervened in the case last year. As part of the decision, the appellate court highlighted the critical need for the HAA and reversed the trial court’s erroneous decision that threatened to undermine key state protections aimed at increasing the availability of housing.
“Housing is a human right,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta. “As Attorney General, I am proud to be a part of our state’s critical efforts to protect this right. Our fight for affordable housing is inextricably tied to our fights for racial, economic, environmental, and social justice. This appellate decision upholding the constitutionality of the Housing Accountability Act is a major victory for all Californians. The law retains strong protections because our state needs strong solutions. Now’s the time for our state and local governments to work together to meet the challenge ahead.”
“Our housing crisis is an existential threat to our state’s future, and we can’t shy from the hard fights it’ll take to create more affordable homes for Californians — including pursuing legal challenges to make sure the housing laws we pass in Sacramento translate to real, new units in local communities across our state,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. “The court’s decision protects our ability to hold local governments to account and ensures that families throughout California won’t suffer when those same local leaders refuse to do their part to approve new housing.”
“This is not only a significant victory for CaRLA, but also for all Californians who feel the effects of a housing crisis that people acknowledge, but no one wants to fix in their own backyards,” said Dylan Casey, Executive Director of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA). “San Mateo tried to deny the creation of new homes by reinterpreting its own vague and subjective design review standards at the last minute. This is exactly the type of behavior that the Housing Accountability Act was enacted to prevent. Cities cannot be allowed to misuse their permitting process to prevent housing that is supposed to be allowed under their own existing rules and general plan.”
“This decision is a home run for housing,” said Daniel Golub, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP, who briefed and argued the case on behalf of CaRLA. “The opinion makes it clear that cities cannot just adopt plans for housing — they must also approve the housing for which they have planned. California ranks 49th out of 50 states in homes per capita, and legal victories like this one are necessary to begin to stem the state’s historic housing supply and affordability crisis.”
The HAA was originally enacted back in 1982, in response to the recognition that inadequate access to housing is a critical statewide problem that can have severe economic, environmental, and social consequences for communities across California.
Since then, the Legislature steadily strengthened the law’s requirements, making it increasingly clear that its mandates—aimed at increasing the availability of housing—are to be taken seriously.
The AG’s office noted that “the lack of affordable housing can contribute to housing discrimination, sprawl, excessive commute times, and air quality deterioration — and the HAA sets reasonable limits on when multi-unit housing proposals can be rejected or conditionally approved.”
According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, “California’s major metropolitan areas in the 30 years leading up to the last decade fell critically short of projected housing need by roughly 100,000 units each year — in part, as a result of a patchwork of subjective local standards fueled by resistance to new housing.”
As originally enacted, “the HAA provides that when a proposed housing development complies with applicable general plan, zoning, and development policies, local agencies may disapprove of a project only if finding that the project would have a specific, adverse, and unavoidable impact on public health or safety.”
The AG’s office noted, “The amended provision, upheld by the court, ensures that the HAA is more effective and meaningful, as the Legislature prescribed.”
(A copy of Friday’s decision – here.)