CaRLA has officially begun work on our appeal of the ruling we received in CaRLA v. San Mateo, because we believe the court is wrong: housing is a statewide issue that cannot be left solely in the hands of local governments.. As we’ve covered before, the trial court’s decision in San Mateo found that the Housing Accountability Act violated the state constitution, and could not be enforced against charter cities. We are appealing to defend the HAA, establish it as a legal and vital part of the legislature’s efforts to combat the statewide housing shortage, and to give meaning to the dozens of new housing bills Governors Newsom and Brown signed into law since we started this fight. The HAA is central to CaRLA’s work, and necessary to ensure that local governments fulfil their obligation to accomodate regional growth by providing more housing. We’re particularly overjoyed with today’s concurrent announcement from the California Attorney General’s office that they’ll be intervening on our behalf to defend the constitutionality of the HAA.

The Housing Accountability Act does not ask very much of local governments. All it asks is that where cities have planned and zoned for housing development, they do not arbitrarily disapprove of individual housing developments that match what they already planned and zoned for. In a state suffering from a drastic housing shortage, this requirement seems like it should be an obvious practice implemented universally by local governments. Why would local governments insist on denying housing developments in areas where they enacted regulations specifically to allow for the development? The answer is that many local governments simply don’t want to follow their own rules when it comes to housing. 

California cities have a long history of approving or disapproving individual housing developments large and small through discretionary processes, often after spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on planning for those same developments. This means that even where a housing development complies with all local rules, standards and regulations, the city council or the planning commission retains the ability to deny the development. Retaining this discretion to disapprove housing allows local government to respond to NIMBY concerns more effectively, because a project may be politically unpopular while still complying with all local rules. 

This uncritical deference to local concerns has proven to be disastrous for housing availability in California. The process adds unpredictability and cost to housing development proposals, meaning that it will discourage some developers from even proposing housing in areas with the highest rents and most need. It also undermines the effectiveness of the planning process. City governments in California put tons of effort into finding sites suitable for housing development through the city’s housing element. While this process has historically only required cities to plan for a fraction of the housing necessary to improve the state’s shortage, it is the best we currently have to require cities to plan for the state’s housing needs. Without the HAA, however, cities were free to undermine their own planning and deny housing developments for whatever reason they choose, without consideration for the regional and statewide consequences.

Proponents of discretionary permitting often claim that they are more democratic because they allow for increased opportunity for public participation in the development process. Most public hearings on individual developments are not democratic. These hearings often serve to amplify the voices of white, affluent homeowners, who are deeply opposed to new development, and minimize the voices of people who are less able to spend 6 hours on a Tuesday night at city hall. It also focuses public participation on individual projects, rather than the broader housing plan for the entire city or region, undermining efforts toward planning for broader, long-term housing needs. 

California has been aware of these problems with local housing decisions for decades. The HAA makes a very simple request of local governments: Don’t deny housing development without good reason. It requires that cities must justify housing disapprovals with a specific, adverse impact of public health and safety. If a city can’t identify such an impact, they have to follow their own rules and approve of the development. We are appealing the decision in San Mateo not just because the HAA is an indispensable tool for solving our housing shortage, but because California cannot afford to let its 121 charter cities undo landmark legislation such as SB 330, Triplexization, Statewide Just Cause Evictions, and others simply because they disagree on their role in solving this housing crisis. 

After nearly 5 years of work, CaRLA is proud to be bringing our first lawsuit to a court of appeals where we have the opportunity to create new law and change what has long been an implicit doctrine of land-use law: deference to local control, even when a city fabricates their arguments from whole cloth. We’re even more excited that the state attorney general has decided to intervene on our behalf and defend the constitutionality of the Housing Accountability Act. Our mission is to restore a legal environment in which California builds housing equal to its needs, and part of that work is making sure that exclusionary cities understand there are consequences for ignoring the rule of law.