Commentary: Bonta Seeks Expanded Ability to Intervene When Cities Attempt to Block State Housing Laws

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Sacramento, CA – When state officials sued Huntington Beach, a wealthy costal city in Orange County, Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed the city a “poster child for nimbyism.”

The Governor sees the lawsuit as part of the state’s effort to crack down on cities and counties that “that flagrantly violate state housing laws.” The Governor added that a NIMBY, or “not in my backyard,” attitude toward housing could no longer be tolerated.

“My administration will take every measure necessary to hold communities accountable for their failure to build their fair share of housing,” Newsom said.

Attorney General Rob Bonta has led the way on such efforts to press local community to comply with state law—and if he gets his way, this legislative session, he will have more power to do so.

Bonta’s office is sponsoring legislation that would give the AG broader discretion to wade into lawsuits over potential violations of state law.

AB 1485 sponsored by San Francisco Assemblymember Matt Haney, is one such measure that would grant the AG expanded authority to increase the state role in enforcing housing laws.

According to a Chronicle article, Haney noted that while some cities have complied with state mandates on housing, “there are numerous localities where NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) politics motivates local officials to make it too burdensome to approve new housing in existing neighborhoods.

“There are localities all across the state, unfortunately, who are trying to make their areas no-new-housing zones,” Haney said. “And that’s a violation of state law. The attorney general has to have the tools to combat that.”

The push comes as the battle between local communities and the state has already ramped up.

Last week, Huntington Beach attempted to get a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to block the state’s enforcement of housing laws while litigation in the case was ongoing.

The AG’s office argued, “California’s housing laws are not only legally sound, but crucial to addressing California’s ongoing housing crisis.”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Local governments don’t get to pick and choose which state laws they want to follow. Huntington Beach’s lawsuit is another baseless and obstructionist attempt by the city to defy state housing laws,” said Attorney General Bonta.

The AG added, “Our state housing laws are a crucial tool for bringing much needed affordable housing to our communities. I applaud the court for today’s decision denying Huntington Beach’s latest attempt to block their city’s residents from accessing crucial housing opportunities afforded by state law. The California Department of Justice will continue to fight to increase housing supply throughout the state, and hold Huntington Beach accountable to state law.”

Polling shows that a vast majority of voters are concerned with housing affordability.

A February Survey by PPIC for example showed that 74 percent of voters view housing affordability as a major issue while nearly 90% are worried that younger generations won’t be able to afford a home in the state.

It’s not just lawsuits—it is also legislation that would streamline approvals.

AB 68, supported by California YIMBY and The Nature Conservancy, would streamline approvals for housing in communities that are hubs for transit and jobs, while attempting to prevent sprawl into rural regions where wildfires and floods are more common.

Breach along with Liz O’Donoghu from nature Nature Conservancy recognize that the housing shortage and climate crisis are not unrelated to each other.

Breach  told the LA Times this week, that the two are in fact “inextricably linked” and that AB 68 offers a solution to both.

“We want to encourage housing in existing communities where people really want to live,” Breach said. “And we want to protect people from the incredibly high risk of fire and flood, and all the other climate risks associated with that.”

In a joint op-ed, Breach and O’Donoghu argue, “Expanding development into natural lands not only puts more people in harm’s way; it also increases the likelihood, frequency and devastation of fires, floods and other disasters.”

“Too many Californians have been forced to live in areas that are in the crosshairs of catastrophic climate impacts,” said Melissa Breach.

She explained, “Our housing policies should minimize risk and protect our residents – but instead, they’re adding fuel to the fire. We have to deprioritize building homes in hazard zones and instead prioritize housing closer to jobs and services, so people can spend more time with their families – and less time in polluting traffic. AB 68 will ensure we build safe and affordable homes in our communities and give more Californians access to a climate-safe future.”

But in order to streamline approvals, the state at times has been forced to go to court to make sure such processes are in fact streamlined.

That is a long and arduous process.

SB 1485 which was unveiled this week, would at least according to their view, help alleviate the problem of cities attempting to block new housing laws.

According to the Chronicle, “While the attorney general already has the ability to file lawsuits against cities that violate housing law under a public right of action, many housing lawsuits in the state have come from YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) groups. Housing activists said such cases filed under a private right of action are needed because Bonta’s office alone cannot police the sheer volume of violations.”

“The attorney general is going to be more and more involved in implementing and enforcing state housing laws,” said Senator Scott Wiener.  “That’s a big, powerful message that when we pass a state housing law, it’s not a suggestion, it’s a requirement.”

“Ensuring that all Californians have access to affordable housing is a top priority for my office, and we’ve been actively working to enforce state housing laws and address our housing crisis,” Bonta said.

Will this be enough to remove the logjam?  Time will tell.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Walter Shwe

    I unequivocally support AB 1485. If you don’t want to be called a ‘NIMBY’, don’t act like one. Easy peasy, it’s not rocket science, next subject.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Go get ’em, Mr. Bonta – including the dozen other Bay Area cities that your YIMBY friends are suing.  (Without even looking at what they’re doing in Southern California.)

    American Canyon, Belvedere, Novato, Pinole and Richmond adopted housing elements without the required review by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), according to YIMBY Law. “That’s illegal,” the group states.

    Meanwhile, Alameda County, Daly City, Fairfax, Half Moon Bay, Martinez, Newark, Pacifica, Pittsburg, Santa Clara County and Vallejo “never published a draft,” stated YIMBY Law.

    Can you guess which side is ultimately going to win this war – through attrition, alone?

    For now, I think the state should get even MORE aggressive. Take it on fully, including the complete process to override cities (and review/approve individual developments which meet its criteria.)

    It’s going to take some actual “damage” to cities, before folks get more involved (e.g., via a state proposition removing power from state officials regarding this issue).

    It’s kind of unfortunate that there’s also a housing/economic downturn at the moment, since this will limit the amount of visible damage (and citizen reaction). At the moment, the damage is mostly on “paper”, only.

  3. Matt Williams

    Walter, that is an interesting comment. I’d be interested to hear how you think the State will accomplish that.  Cities don’t build housing … private investors build housing.  They only do so if they can achieve an “appropriate” bottom-line profit. If that profit can’t be achieved, they simply won’t go forward (just like Brixmor is not going forward with housing at University Mall). There is nothing that a City can do to both increase the developer’s bottom-line AND deliver the State’s affordable housing targets.  Further, short of providing direct funding subsidies to the developer, there is nothing the State can do to both increase the developer’s bottom-line AND deliver the State’s affordable housing targets.

    Do you have a solution to that fundamental problem?

  4. Ron Oertel

    AB 68, supported by California YIMBY and The Nature Conservancy, would streamline approvals for housing in communities that are hubs for transit and jobs, while attempting to prevent sprawl into rural regions where wildfires and floods are more common.

    As I noted the other day, the author of the bill mentioned in the Vanguard article above states the following:

    The bill also requires local governments to prioritize new housing within existing communities before allowing sprawl into critical natural and working lands that are vital resources for climate resilience.

    Have to wonder what he means by “working lands”.  I suspect that it means “farmland”. (Must have gone unnoticed so far, by the YIMBY group.)

    Walter: The State will ultimately win the affordable housing war

    It actually has nothing to do with affordable housing. If it did, the paid YIMBY groups wouldn’t be suing cities, and the politicians behind this wouldn’t be supported by the underlying business interests.

    It’s primarily about forcing market-rate housing, and overriding local concerns regarding the impact. Again, it’s ultimately business interests pushing this under the guise of “affordable housing”. It’s unfortunate that some refuse to see where the funding for this is coming from.

    1. David Greenwald

      “It actually has nothing to do with affordable housing.”

      You say that.

      But the reality is that the builder’s remedy, comes with a 20 percent affordable requirement.

      The lawsuit in Elk Grove is an affordable housing lawsuit.

      Haney’s bill provides for an enforcement mechanism for Housing Accountability Act, the Density Bonus Law, and the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 – much of which deals with affordable housing.

      So to say that this has nothing to do with affordable housing when the specific bills specifically facilitate affordable housing is false.

      1. David Greenwald

        Add to that you criticized the YIMBY lawsuits… but…

        “Sausalito has blatantly ignored state housing law by including an infeasible site inventory and bypassing necessary environmental review,” said Keith Diggs, Attorney at YIMBY Law. “This lack of compliance subjects the city to the builder’s remedy so much-needed housing can be built anyway.”

        The solution is the builder’s remedy which is again a 20 percent affordable housing remedy.

  5. Ron Oertel

    From David (quoting me): “It actually has nothing to do with affordable housing.”
    You say that.

    I did “say that”, in regard to the underlying interests supporting the groups which are suing cities, as well as the politicians that they helped put in office.

    I recall that California YIMBY does not provide the source of its funds on its website, though they’ve previously directed me to “sign up” to an external site which supposedly lists it.  I haven’t pursued it recently, but 48 Hills has done some of the type of research that the Vanguard should be doing:

    The big Yimby money behind housing deregulation bills

    Cal Yimby spent more than $500,000 pushing for laws that would promote market-rate development with no real affordability guarantees.

    Are yimbys the new progressives? Only in a bizarre Wonderland

    Two major developer-driven housing bills head for Assembly floor

    The California Association of Realtors funds “Californians for Homeownership” (which states this on its website):

    That’s where we come in: we monitor compliance with laws that prohibit exclusionary land use practices—and, when necessary, we sue to enforce them. Learn more about our work.

     From David: But the reality is that the builder’s remedy, comes with a 20 percent affordable requirement.

    Does that not leave 80% as “market-rate”?  And what does “affordable” mean in this case, anyway?

    From David: So to say that this has nothing to do with affordable housing when the specific bills specifically facilitate affordable housing is false.

    The groups behind this state that they’re concerned about affordable housing, but their funding sources and general advocacy is primarily focused on market-rate housing.

    You have a computer, and can Google this yourself as well. Why don’t you use it to do some actual research and reporting, David?

      1. Ron Oertel

        Thanks for posting that, Don.

        Some things immediately stood out, if I’m reading it correctly:

        Mixed-use is entirely exempt from Affordable housing requirements, if 2/3 of the building is designated for residential use.

        The singular category for very low, low, or moderate households is rather confusing.

        The Affordable housing requirement apparently disappears entirely, after 30 years. (Gee, what could go wrong with that, assuming that cities still exist in 30 years.)

        Not sure what agency is supposedly going to track and enforce this over the 30-year period, or if there will be funding to do so over that entire period. (I guess it also depends upon how often the “builder’s remedy” is actually used.)

        In any case, it appears that these types of developments haven’t been “penciling out” much in the first place. Which might be a factor regarding the reason that the YIMBY types have resorted to lawsuits regarding housing elements, instead. (Housing elements generally include a lot of market-rate housing.)

        But again, I’d invite the Vanguard to do some of the type of research that 48 Hills has been doing.

  6. Ron Oertel

    Since you mention Haney, here’s another article regarding the apparent difference between him and his opponent.

    Sup Matt Haney defeated David Campos in a state Assembly election where less than 25 percent of the registered voters cast ballots, most of them were over 50, and some $2 million in mostly real-estate money was used to attack Campos.

    The real issue is why no local reporters ever question the fantasy of the Yimby narrative.

    First of all, I would argue that nobody who gets $2 million in support from the California Association of Realtors—a group that has blocked any reform of the Ellis Act, that has kept cities from passing effective rent control, and that has been responsible for thousands of evictions in San Francisco alone—can ever call themselves a “progressive,” much less an “unabashed” progressive.

    Building more housing “at all levels” by limiting regulations is a giant, obvious, myth, just like “creating jobs by cutting taxes” and the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” We have lots and lots of data on this, going back 40 years, to the Reagan era.

    We know that California Yimby is funded by the real-estate industry.

    Private developers will never build housing at “all levels.” What, exactly, are the Chron reporters thinking about? Private developers respond to the market and to what investors will fund; that is, right now, housing for the rich and tech-worker dorms.

    That’s it. That’s what “pencils out.”

    And below is an article regarding Mayor Breed vs. Supervisor Preston.  Can you guess which one is more-aligned with YIMBYs?

    Breed has opposed Preston in every race, and will run a candidate against him in 2024. The argument the mayor’s candidate will make is that Preston is against housing.

    Preston did not support the original plans for 400 Divisadero, which included 186 units of market-rate housing. Breed backed that deal, strongly.

    It fell through for the same reason a lot of market-rate housing deals are falling through: The developer couldn’t make the financing work.

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