By Chris Reed.
The city of Huntington Beach and the state government are suing each other over the state’s attempts to require that local governments step up housing construction. Besides affecting the housing crisis that Gov. Gavin Newsom calls an “existential” threat to California, the litigation could break ground in establishing how far charter cities – which have their own de facto constitutions – can go in rejecting state edicts.
The state’s lawsuit – filed in Orange County Superior Court by Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Jan. 25 at Newsom’s behest – is the first to be filed under a 2017 law that allows the state to pursue legal action against local governments that don’t comply with their housing requirements.
The state wants to compel Huntington Beach to build 533 low-income housing units by Dec. 31, 2021, to meet its state quota. The city has only approved about 100 such units,according to the Southern California News Group.
City attorney sees H.B. singled out for its politics
Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates maintains that as a charter city, his city should be able to set its own housing policies. He also hinted that there were political motives driving the actions of Democrats Newsom and Becerra. “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, he wrote in a statement. Huntington Beach has been a Republican redoubt for decades.
But state officials said they were motivated by Huntington Beach’s bad faith. Not only did the city refuse to provide a housing plan in compliance with state rules, in 2015, the City Council revised zoning rules to reduce by 2,400 the number of homes allowed in a neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city near Interstate 405.
While the state’s suit got far more attention, Huntington Beach’s suit – filed Jan. 17 in Orange County Superior Court – also involves high stakes. The city is targeting Senate Bill 35, the high-profile 2017 state law crafted by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, that limits the ability of local governments to block housing projects that meet certain conditions, such as using union labor and including a portion of affordable units.
“It’s one thing to have more basic housing laws come out of Sacramento; it’s another to have Sacramento try to micromanage cities’ zoning and attempt to approve development projects in spite of the city,” Gates told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s really nothing more than the city trying to maintain its local control.”
Can charter cities defy state’s housing edicts?
Wiener blasted Huntington Beach in a statement given to his hometown paper. “Huntington Beach’s dismissive approach to housing – claiming there is no problem and that the state should just mind its own business – is Exhibit A for why we have a crisis in this state.”
When SB35 was discussed in 2017, there is no indication from a Nexis news search that Wiener or any lawmaker saw charter cities as being exempt from the bill’s requirements.
But lawyers for the League of California Cities have used language similar to that in Huntington Beach’s lawsuit to assert that there are limits to state power over charter cities. “The benefit of becoming a charter city is that charter cities have supreme authority over ‘municipal affairs,’” states the league’s legal primer on the topic. “In other words, a charter city’s law concerning a municipal affair will trump a state law governing the same topic.”
About one-quarter of California’s 478 cities have charter status. If Huntington Beach wins its challenge to SB35, general law cities that want to regain greater control over local planning could craft proposed charters and ask their voters to approve them under a process laid out in the state Constitution.