By the Western Center on Law & Poverty Housing Team
Last week, the Newsom Administration announced legal action against the City of Huntington Beach on the claim that the city intentionally violated state housing law. The city has long ignored its obligation to meaningfully plan for and provide housing access to its residents across all income levels, even when the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) offered resources and help to get the city into compliance. Now, under authority provided by a Western Center co-sponsored bill, the California Attorney General is poised to move forward with litigation against the city to enforce the law.
Under California law, all cities and counties must take certain actions to accommodate housing at all income levels to serve existing and future residents. While the law provides flexibility, it does not allow cities and counties to close their borders to growth, or to accommodate only wealthy residents. To ensure that cities and counties are meeting this obligation, they must adopt a general plan, which includes a housing element that analyzes the community’s housing needs and outlines concrete actions—including zoning—to ensure needed housing can be produced.
Part of that commitment includes zoning to allow the development of dense multifamily housing, which is crucial to producing units affordable to lower-income households. Communities must also show how they plan to undo the legacy of racially exclusionary policies like redlining by taking actions to reduce racial and economic segregation. Unfortunately, jurisdictions throughout California have not always complied with the law, which is, in part, how California ended up with a severe shortage of housing relative to its population — a shortage that is most acute at the lower income levels.
To address local jurisdictions’ noncompliance with the state’s planning requirements, Western Center, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and the California Housing Consortium co-sponsored AB 72 (2017), a bill authored by Asm. Miguel Santiago. Under the new law, HCD must notify local governments when they are violating Housing Element Law and other important housing laws and give the city or county time to address the violation. If the jurisdiction declines to take corrective action, HCD can refer the case to the Attorney General for enforcement. The purpose of the law is to ensure that communities not only adopt housing elements that comply with the law, but also that they carry out commitments made in their housing elements.
Historically, the state has rarely enforced its own housing and land use laws against cities seeking to exclude lower-income residents. This lack of enforcement, combined with the actions of Huntington Beach and like-minded cities, inspired Western Center and its partners to advocate for AB 72.
Huntington Beach has a long history of restricting new housing development in its city limits, particularly the higher-density development that is needed to produce affordable units. In spite of warnings from HCD, the city has continued to restrict development opportunities, exacerbating our state’s housing crisis and leaving the community far short of meeting its fair share obligations under Housing Element Law. Huntington Beach is one of many cities that prompted our coalition to advocate for AB 72, so it is unsurprising that it is the first to be sued by the Attorney General for lack of compliance.
We are pleased to see Governor Newsom taking the state’s housing challenges seriously. In a press release from his office, he recognized the importance of addressing our urgent housing crisis. “The huge housing costs and sky-high rents are eroding quality of life for families across this state. California’s housing crisis is an existential threat to our state’s future and demands an urgent and comprehensive response.”
The state’s housing crisis is in fact an existential threat to our state’s stability and well-being. A comprehensive response requires housing for the 1.5 million lowest income households that currently lack affordable housing, and a commitment to ensuring that no person is forced to sleep on the street.
By eliminating the housing shortage for the poorest Californians, we improve the quality of life for all Californians. We are pleased to see Governor Newsom putting AB 72 to use so early in his tenure, because the state will only solve the housing crisis if Huntington Beach and like-minded cities are held accountable. We hope the Governor’s action prompts other municipalities to take their housing obligations seriously.
Change may be scary for homeowners living in places like Huntington Beach who would prefer for things to remain the same, but with the largest population in the U.S. and the world’s 5th largest economy, California cannot afford to remain stagnant. Nothing is scarier than the prospect of losing access to housing, and that is exactly what Californians across the state are facing as housing becomes more scarce. For the people Western Center serves, that access is already largely non-existent.
The enforcement of AB 72 will help ensure that municipalities develop in ways that consider all residents in their jurisdictions. Our state is too big to be exclusionary — we are thrilled that Governor Newsom recognizes that reality, and is willing to utilize the law to take irresponsible local governments to task.