The city of Huntington Beach and the state of California may be in a race to file lawsuits against each other over housing issues.
Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates said at a news conference Tuesday that his office was preparing a lawsuit against the state to challenge the state’s mandate to allocate regional housing needs of 13,368 units. He was allowed to do so at the December 20 City Council meeting by a vote of 4 to 3.
The lawsuit will be revealed in the coming weeks, Gates said.
At the same press conference, Councilman Casey McKeon said Huntington Beach leaders were working with the Department of Housing and Community Development to meet that minimum number of units. But McKeon and the three other newly elected conservatives on the City Council, including Mayor Tony Strickland, spoke as they campaigned to “unleash” Gates to challenge the state’s housing demands.
“This is a two-part process,” Strickland said. “Obviously we are doing what the state has said as our minimum that we must do, but on the other hand we feel this is unfair to the City of Huntington Beach. … As someone who has served in Sacramento, someone who has served in the California State Senate and the State Assembly, I think it’s pretty obvious that Sacramento wants to urbanize Huntington Beach. The people of Huntington Beach don’t want this to become an urban community. They love the suburban coastal community it is today. The bottom line is that we’re going to fight.”
McKeon said Huntington Beach was awaiting a response from the state on details of its housing plan, which could take 60 to 90 days. City staff and consultants had developed a housing element of the city’s overall plan that would likely have been deemed compliant last fall — but the new council didn’t vote on it after sitting down in early December.
That lack of compliance with state law opened the city up “builder’s remedy” applications, which can be used to get around local zoning laws. The Planning Commission voted Tuesday night to recommend an ordinance that would ban these applications, though state representatives have warned the city that doing so would violate California law.
The previous city council voted against suing the state in April 2021. Legal challenges filed by other cities in the past have been unsuccessful, but Gates said he believed Huntington Beach had a unique set of circumstances. It is one of 121 charter cities statewide, and Gates said he believed authority was superseding state law in this matter.
“Let the free market dictate what the demand is per city,” McKeon said. “Why is the government forcing housing down our throats? … We’re just fighting for our local control, especially as a charter city. We are going to fight for our citizens and our voters who elected us.”
The state, meanwhile, may be preparing a lawsuit against Huntington Beach.
The Planning Commission voted 4 to 2 (with one member absent) on Tuesday to recommend approval of the “builder’s remedy” zoning text change.
The vote came one day after Atty state. General Rob Bonta sent a warning letter to Gates, advising him that the zoning text change violated the state’s Housing Accountability Act by hindering affordable housing projects.
“The ordinance proposed by the City of Huntington Beach seeks to unlawfully exempt the city from state law creating much-needed additional housing for low- and middle-income Californians,” Deputy Atty said. Gene. David Pai, writes on behalf of Bonta, in the letter. “With today’s letter, we are notifying the city that passing this ordinance is against state law. I urge cities to take their obligations under state housing laws seriously. If you don’t, we’ll hold you accountable.”
“Builder’s remedy” allows developers to submit housing projects without regard to local zoning and general planning standards, if 20% of the units are affordable housing or 100% are middle-income housing.
McKeon argued on Tuesday that these recovery projects are dangerous for builders because they skip local zoning requirements designed to make communities safe, keep projects environmentally sound and ensure developments take place in areas compatible with existing developments. But Pai said in the letter that the inconsistency of an affordable housing project with zoning codes “constitutes no specific, adverse public health or safety effect.”
“To the extent that the City of Huntington Beach has legitimate environmental concerns, those can be addressed on a project basis, consistent with state law,” Pai said. “The City of Huntington Beach should proactively try to facilitate more affordable housing projects, not restrict and stigmatize them.”
Planning Commissioner Oscar Rodriguez, who grew up in the relatively low-income Oak View neighborhood of Huntington Beach, said he would agree with that sentiment.
Rodriguez, who voted against the zoning text change, criticized the item’s vague nature on Tuesday night, adding that it was “a direct attack on affordable housing in the city.”
“It won’t get us anywhere except getting sued,” he said.