By Timothy L. Coyle.
In a move that may signal more to come, Governor Newsom is backing up his get-tough language with California communities by announcing that he is taking the City of Huntington Beach to court for failure to meet its housing need. The unprecedented action startled some at the Capitol while pleasing many who remarked that the lawsuit could represent “a turning point” in the state’s struggle to overcome its housing crisis.
Newsom said Huntington Beach has continually refused to meet a state mandate to provide new housing for low-income people – typically the high-density, lower-cost kind. New housing approvals in the Orange County beachside community, dubbed “Surf City”, has typically come in the form of low-density, high-cost homes, the lawsuit says.
“Californians spend more of their income on housing costs than residents of almost any other place in America,” the Governor said in a statement detailing the lawsuit. “Data show these huge costs are driving families further away from their jobs, and often out of the state.”
The lawsuit is the first to be filed under a new state law which authorizes California housing officials to refer communities to the attorney general for legal action if they do not adequately plan for new housing. Cities and counties in the state are required by law to adopt a housing plan that meets their housing needs.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) administers the law. HCD judges the communities’ compliance by examining the extent to which an adequate number of “sites for housing” have been zoned.
There are as many as five dozen communities in California that are currently out of compliance with state housing law. Huntington Beach was singled out because while it allegedly had a plan some years ago that got an HCD sign-off it subsequently amended the plan to substantially lower the number of housing units it would approve. While the City’s action to reduce its housing need is reportedly what triggered the lawsuit, some in the community worry that partisan politics is playing a role.
“It is noteworthy that Sacramento is suing only the City of Huntington Beach, while over 50 other cities in California have not yet met their targets,” said City Attorney Michael Gates. “That raises questions about the motivation for this lawsuit filed only against Huntington Beach.”
But, while the City of Huntington Beach is currently represented in the state Senate by the GOP’s John Moorlach representation in the Assembly is split, with Republican Tyler Diep sharing the community with newly elected Democrat Cottie Petrie-Norris. Orange County is the scene of severe Republican losses in the last election and one would assume a partisan Democrat like Gavin Newsom would not want to be responsible for a reversal of fortune there.
The Governor’s legal action advances an aggressive housing agenda that he campaigned on and set in the first weeks of his administration. For instance, on the campaign trail last year, he promised to build roughly 3.5 million housing units by 2025 to meet projected population growth. To accomplish this goal, the Governor knew he’d have to get tough with local governments.
“Cities and counties are important partners in addressing this housing crisis, and many cities are making herculean efforts to meet this crisis head on,” he said. “But some cities are refusing to do their part to address this crisis and willfully stand in violation of California law. Those cities will be held to account.”
The Governor raised the stakes in his recent budget proposal by proposing hundreds of millions in state funding as subsidies for affordable housing, including $500 million to encourage cities and counties to meet their production objectives. He has also suggested limiting transportation funding to locals which don’t meet their goals.
The complaint was filed in Orange County Superior Court by California’s attorney general. The state is seeking an order that would compel Huntington Beach to reverse its recent decision to cut its housing sites.
Lawsuits are typically ugly, time-taxing affairs. Very often they don’t achieve their desired results, either. Governor Newsom would be better off holding transportation dollars hostage. In these cash-strapped times, doing so would certainly get local government’s attention. And, it just might get some new housing built.
But, if filing lawsuits becomes the primary means of accomplishing the Governor’s housing goals, tough times are ahead.