Gov. Gavin Newsom isn’t playing around on housing.
The governor already shocked the status quo when — during his first week in office — he threatened to withhold transportation dollars from communities that fail to build enough homes to meet their needs.
On Friday, he ramped up the pressure with an announcement that the state would sue the city of Huntington Beach for “standing in the way of affordable housing production and refusing to meet regional housing needs.”
It’s rare for the state to sue local governments over housing laws. In fact, until recently, the state took a mostly hands-off approach to housing, allowing cities and counties to control land use and make development decisions. That didn’t work, as Liam Dillon’s investigation in 2017 found. Far too many local elected officials gave in to NIMBYism for far too long. Now California is deep into a housing shortage that is fueling homelessness, poverty and inequality.
State lawmakers have begun clawing back some local control over land-use decisions and adding teeth to existing housing laws. And now Newsom, who ran for governor on what seemed to be outrageously ambitious housing goals, is cracking down on local obstinance as well.
“Cities and counties are important partners in addressing this housing crisis, and many cities are making herculean efforts to meet this crisis head on,” Newsom said in a statement. “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.”
Perhaps as a former mayor of San Francisco, Newsom understands that local officials, barraged by angry NIMBYs and slow-growth activists, need state leaders to bring the hammer. The threat of a lawsuit or losing transportation funding gives city council members cover to make unpopular decisions for the greater good: “See, we have to plan for more apartments and denser housing, or we’ll get sued.”
Huntington Beach and the state’s Department Housing and Community Development have been in a standoff for several years over the city’s refusal to rezone enough properties for denser development to accommodate more apartments and condominiums.
The state’s “fair share” housing law requires cities and counties to produce lengthy reports explaining how and where they could allow both the affordable and market-rate development needed to house their share of an ever-growing state population.
Huntington Beach officials adopted a plan in 2013 to allow taller, denser buildings on certain corridors, with more units for low-income tenants. Residents rebelled, complaining about “monstrosity development” and warning that more apartments would bring crime and traffic. In 2015, the city slashed the number of units that could be built — meaning the city was no longer in compliance with the “fair share” housing law.
The lawsuit, which will be filed by Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, will seek to require Huntington Beach to amend its plans to allow for the development of more affordable and market-rate housing.
Huntington Beach may just be the first city targeted; there are more than two dozen jurisdictions that have failed to comply with state housing law. Newsom is making it clear that his administration won’t tolerate NIMBY towns.