Huntington Beach invites state lawsuit by limiting housing development

Huntington Beach invites state lawsuit by limiting housing development

Huntington Beach leaders are inviting a renewed court battle over state housing laws, taking a series of actions on Tuesday, March 7, to limit homebuilding in the beachside town.

“What I am against is the urbanization of a wonderful suburban community,” Mayor Tony Strickland said during a five-hour City Council session Tuesday. “If our citizens wanted an urban community, they will move to Los Angeles.”

Tuesday’s actions included a 4-3 council vote to ignore homebuilding applications filed under the so-called “builder’s remedy,” a three-decade-old provision allowing developers to sidestep zoning restrictions in cities without a state-approved housing plan. The city must confirm that vote on a second reading, planned for March 21.

The council also voted 4-3 to extend a recent decision not to accept any new applications for backyard housing units known as accessory dwelling units, ADUs, or granny flats.

Following a closed session, City Attorney Michael Gates announced the council also decided to pursue options for challenging Senate Bill 9, a state law allowing duplexes and lot splits in single-family neighborhoods. A city lawsuit challenging the law that could be among the options, Gates said.

In addition, Gates said the city will file a new lawsuit on Thursday challenging a state-mandated goal that it plan for construction of 13,368 new homes by the end of the decade.

The city has argued that as a charter city, Huntington Beach has greater autonomy and, therefore, isn’t subject to state housing laws.

“We are definitely in an area where charter city authority versus state authority on control of local housing decisions is still largely unresolved,” Gates told the councilmembers. “There’s a lawsuit challenging SB 9. There are lawsuits all over up and down the state, challenging state laws.”

Although Huntington Beach long has been at odds with the state over housing, it’s not alone. Local leaders statewide have been protesting laws to end California’s housing shortage by limiting the local governments’ ability to deny homebuilding.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made an example of Huntington Beach in 2019 when the state filed its first lawsuit against a city for not having a state-approved housing plan, known as a housing element.

After fighting the state on charter city grounds for a year, Huntington Beach relented, settling the case out of court after losing millions of dollars in state funding – one of the consequences of not having a housing element.

But the city’s new plan to ignore the builder’s remedy ignited a recent firestorm of criticism.

“When Californians ask why there isn’t enough housing, why the cost of renting continues to increase or why there are so many people experiencing homelessness, I tell them to look at Huntington Beach,” Newsom said in a Feb. 13 statement.

He called the Orange County town “another city where elected officials are resorting to cheap political stunts to avoid their responsibility to build desperately needed housing.”

A week later, Attorney General Rob Bonta warned the city it would face state action if it followed through on the builder’s remedy ban.

“We need partners in building a more affordable California, not more political grandstanding,” Bonta said in a statement. “My office is ready to take action as necessary to enforce our laws.”

Huntington Beach is one of 242 California municipalities subject to the builder’s remedy because it has yet to adopt a state-certified housing element spelling out where future housing can be built. City leaders across the state are concerned the builder’s remedy will bring unwanted housing to their neighborhoods and yet, stricter laws made adoption of housing elements more difficult and time consuming.

As a result, at least 26 builder’s remedy applications have been filed since June in Southern California alone. The projects seek to build more than 8,600 apartments in high-rises as tall as 18 stories.

“I think what’s coming from the state is a goal to get rid of suburbs around California,” Mayor Strickland said. “The citizens of Huntington Beach that I was talking to said they wanted to keep that coastal community suburban feel that we have here today.”

Councilmember Dan Kalmick introduced a measure without success to resume processing applications for backyard units. Residents hiring architects and taking out loans need to proceed with plans to house elderly family members, he said.

The city is “pulling the rug out from under people” with almost no warning, Kalmick said. “Many of us have gotten phone calls from residents asking what’s going on with ADUs?”

City officials said they will continue to process about 100 ADU applications already on file, but would halt acceptance of new applications without council authorization.

Councilmember Pat Burns argued that approving ADUs under relaxed state provisions harms the qualify of life in single-family neighborhoods.

He supported an extension of the application ban as “part of the resistance to the state overreach that is trying to ruin this city with overbuilding in single-family, residential neighborhoods.”

“Sacramento thinks they can tell us how to zone our properties,” Burns said. “And we need to resist it in any way we can.”