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After Huntington Beach lawsuit, Newsom warns cities he'll continue housing law crackdown

After Huntington Beach lawsuit, Newsom warns cities he'll continue housing law crackdown
Gov. Gavin Newsom, center left, and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, right, tour Century Villages at Cabrillo, an affordable housing development, on Tuesday. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Just weeks after suing Huntington Beach for allegedly failing to comply with state housing laws, Gov. Gavin Newsom met with more than a dozen city and county officials in Long Beach on Tuesday, warning that local concerns would not override his plans to address the state’s housing affordability crisis.

The elected officials came from local governments that — like Huntington Beach — the state says aren’t following California’s housing supply law. Tuesday’s gathering was another sign that the governor plans to use the threat of litigation to pressure cities into allowing more development.

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Newsom said he hoped to work with leaders to make their residents aware that all Californians are responsible for the state’s housing concerns.

“You can’t just see the world through the lens of your own city,” Newsom said at a news conference after the meeting. “You have to see it through the eyes of those on the streets and sidewalks outside of your jurisdiction.”

In January, Newsom authorized a lawsuit against Huntington Beach, alleging the Orange County city has failed to comply with the housing supply law, the state government’s primary tool to encourage development.

With a population of 200,000, Huntington Beach is the largest of the 47 cities and counties the state says are not following the law. Representatives from just 20 of the communities attended Tuesday’s meeting, but Newsom said a second was planned so that more could attend.

The governor has said Huntington Beach flouted the law after the state blessed its zoning plan, when the City Council added a host of new barriers to growth, putting it out of compliance.

The coastal community has countered with multiple lawsuits against the state, alleging efforts to force the city’s hand on development are an unconstitutional incursion on its power. Huntington Beach did not send a representative to Tuesday’s meeting.

During his campaign, Newsom set a goal for 3.5 million new homes to be built in the state over the next seven years, a rate that would more than quadruple current levels of production.

In his first days in office, the governor has taken aim at local governments, blaming polices that stymie growth as a key driver in the state’s worsening affordability issues. The lawsuit filed against Huntington Beach was the first state legal action in nearly a decade involving the housing law.

The hour-long meeting at Long Beach City College was closed to the public. But at a news conference held afterward, Newsom was asked if the state planned to sue more cities. A chorus of mayors behind him said, “No!” and “Don’t do it!”

The elected officials said they told Newsom that they needed more state support for housing, lamenting that eight years ago the Legislature did away with a property tax incentive program that put $1 billion a year toward low-income housing. They also said state environmental laws made it difficult to facilitate construction.

Jhonny Pineda, the mayor of Huntington Park, said his city of nearly 60,000 people in southeastern Los Angeles has little land available for new development and not enough police, fire and other services to support growth. Pineda said the council is considering rezoning old industrial properties for housing but is worried that they might be contaminated with toxic pollutants.

In his State of the State address last week, Newsom named Huntington Park as a city that wasn’t doing enough on housing, and Pineda said he welcomed the chance to share the city’s problems with the governor.

“We want to collaborate and be team players to make sure that people can continue to live in our city and California as well,” Pineda said.

The 1967 housing supply law, known formally as the “housing element,” requires cities and counties to zone land for new development sufficient to accommodate children born in California and people expected to relocate to the state. The law does not require cities or counties to facilitate construction of new homes, affordable or otherwise.

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Over an eight-year period, state officials send estimates of the housing needed to meet projected population growth to regional agencies, including the Southern California Assn. of Governments in the Los Angeles area. These agencies outline how many new homes are needed across four income levels: very low, low, moderate and above-moderate. Today, more than 90% of the state’s 539 cities and counties are in compliance.

In theory, all cities and counties would receive their fair share of growth under the law. But in practice, it hasn’t worked that way.

Beverly Hills, for instance, was required to zone only for three new homes, according to its most recent plan. And even though the Bay Area is considered the epicenter of the state’s housing affordability problems, every city in the region has zoned sufficient land per state rules that didn’t take into account the region’s booming post-recession job growth. Communities in Marin County, a wealthy area north of San Francisco with a poor record of low-income housing production, have even received a special exemption from the law, allowing cities there to zone for less dense construction than otherwise required after lawmakers recently approved two bills providing that break.

Nevertheless, the law identifies communities that have put barriers in place to prevent homebuilding. The San Diego County city of Encinitas is the only local government with a population greater than 5,500 people never to have had a compliant housing plan.

A voter initiative from 2013 requires public approval every time a developer wants to change zoning rules or increase density, and Encinitas residents have turned down two recent attempts at the ballot box for a citywide development plan aimed at complying with state rules.

Debates over housing have upended city politics, with opponents of the most recent zoning proposal comparing it to Jim Crow laws, which enforced segregation in the South and were repealed in the 1960s, alleging it limited locations for low-income development while simultaneously complaining that it would cause traffic to overwhelm the beachside community.

Both tenants’ rights and development groups have sued Encinitas over its failure to pass a state-approved plan. Earlier this month, state housing officials added greater urgency, warning the city it needed to amend or repeal its anti-growth initiative to comply.

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Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear said she told Newsom not to sue her city because a recent court order requires officials to submit a new housing plan by April. She said the city is working to comply.

“We’re basically going to do whatever they require,” Blakespear said. “This is state law. We’re not in a negotiating position.”

Some cities that are out of compliance with the law are rural communities with few residents and distinct challenges. Trinidad in Humboldt County, for instance, has a population of 199.

Brian Bergman, the mayor of La Habra Heights in eastern Los Angeles, said his community of 5,500 people still has septic tanks instead of a central sewage system and a limited budget that makes it difficult to develop new zoning rules.

“Obviously, we have to gain compliance,” Bergman said. “It’s just that we have a lot of challenges to get there.”

Newsom said he understood that cities might face difficulties specific to their own communities, but also noted that he has proposed $1.3 billion in his budget to support local efforts to plan for and build low-income housing and support homeless services.

Before meeting with local governments, Newsom toured a low-income housing project in Long Beach with its mayor, Robert Garcia. The governor praised Long Beach’s efforts to support affordable housing and said others should use the city as a model.

“There’s really no excuse except political will, which I know in some cases is in scarce supply,” Newsom said. “But not in California. We’re better than that.”

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