Huntington Beach vows to continue housing fight, despite state warnings

Huntington Beach City Councilman Casey McKeon speaks about the city's battle with the state of California over housing laws.
Huntington Beach City Councilman Casey McKeon speaks during a press conference to discuss the city’s battle with the state of California over housing laws on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The city of Huntington Beach and the state of California might be in a race to file lawsuits against each other over housing issues.

Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates said at a press conference Tuesday that his office is preparing a lawsuit against the state, challenging Surf City’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation number of 13,368 units for the current cycle. He was authorized to do so at the Dec. 20 City Council meeting on a 4-3 vote.

The lawsuit will be unveiled in the next couple of weeks, Gates said.

At the same press conference, Councilman Casey McKeon said Huntington Beach leaders are, begrudgingly perhaps, working with the state Housing and Urban Development office to meet that minimum number of 13,368 units. But McKeon and the three other newly elected conservatives on the City Council, including Mayor Tony Strickland, partially ran on a platform of “unleashing” Gates to challenge the state’s housing requirements.


“This is a two-prong process,” Strickland said. “Obviously we’re doing what the state has said is our minimum that we have to do, but on the other end, we do believe this is unfair to the city of Huntington Beach ... As someone who’s served in Sacramento, someone who’s been in the California state Senate and the state Assembly, I think it’s pretty clear that Sacramento wants to urbanize Huntington Beach. The people of Huntington Beach don’t want this to be an urban community. They like the suburban, coastal community that it is today. The bottom line is, we’re going to fight.”

McKeon said Huntington Beach is waiting for a response from HUD on its housing element map and the details thereof, which could take 60 to 90 days. City staff and consultants had developed a housing element that would have likely been deemed compliant last fall, but the new council didn’t vote on it once seated in early December.

City Council member Casey McKeon, center, flanked by Mayor Tony Strickland and City Atty. Michael Gates, speaks Tuesday.
Huntington Beach City Council member Casey McKeon, center, flanked by Mayor Tony Strickland and City Atty. Michael Gates, speaks on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

This lack of compliance with state law has opened the city up to “builder’s remedy” applications, which can be used to circumvent 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 this violates California law.

The previous City Council voted against suing the state in April 2021. Legal challenges posted by other cities in the past have been unsuccessful, but Gates said he believed Huntington Beach has a unique set of circumstances. It is one of 121 charter cities statewide, and Gates said he believes that authority supersedes the state law in the case.

“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, as a charter city, especially. We’re going to fight for our residents and our constituents that elected us.”

The state, meanwhile, may be preparing a lawsuit against Huntington Beach on a separate but related issue.

A community member who chose not to give her name holds a sign during a press conference on Tuesday at City Hall.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The Planning Commission voted 4-2-1 on Tuesday to recommend approval of the “builder’s remedy” zoning text amendment. Chairperson Tracy Pellman, Vice-Chair Butch Twining and Commissioners Rick Wood and Don Kennedy were the “yes” votes, while Commissioners Oscar Rodriguez and Kayla Acosta-Galvan voted against. Commissioner Ian Adam was absent.

The vote came a day after state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta issued a warning letter to Gates, advising him the zoning text amendment violated the state’s Housing Accountability Act by hampering affordable housing projects.

“The city of Huntington Beach’s proposed ordinance attempts to unlawfully exempt the city from state law that creates sorely needed additional housing for low- and moderate-income Californians,” said Deputy Atty. Gen. David Pai, writing on behalf of Bonta, in the letter. “With today’s letter, we’re putting the city on notice that adopting this ordinance would violate state law. I urge cities to take seriously their obligations under state housing laws. If you don’t, we will hold you accountable.”

“Builder’s remedy” happens when developers can take advantage of cities that have their housing element out of compliance, as Huntington Beach currently does. It allows project developers to submit housing projects without regard to local zoning and general plan standards, if 20% of units are designated affordable housing or 100% are moderate-income housing.

Huntington Beach City Council member Casey McKeon speaks during Tuesday's press conference.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

McKeon argued Tuesday that these builder’s remedy projects are dangerous because they skip past local zoning requirements designed to make communities safe, keep projects environmentally friendly and ensure developments are located in areas compatible with existing developments. But Pai said in the letter that an affordable housing project’s inconsistency with zoning codes “does not constitute a specific, adverse impact on public health or safety.”

“To the extent the city of Huntington Beach has legitimate environmental concerns, those can be addressed on a project-by-project basis, in accordance with state laws,” Pai said. “The city of Huntington Beach should be proactively seeking to permit for more affordable housing projects, not restricting and stigmatizing them.”

Rodriguez, who grew up in the relatively low-income Oak View neighborhood of Huntington Beach, would agree with that sentiment.

He criticized the vague nature of the item Tuesday night, adding that was “a direct attack on affordable housing in the city.

“It will get us nowhere besides getting sued,” he said.

Rodriguez asked assistant City Atty. Mike Vigliotta about the ramifications of passing the zoning text amendment, while Acosta-Galvan questioned him on what would happen if a builder’s remedy application were to come in under the item.

Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland speaks during Tuesday's press conference.
Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland speaks during Tuesday’s press conference to discuss the city’s battle with the state of California over housing laws.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I don’t want to get into hypothetical situations,” Vigliotta responded. “When it’s adopted, we’ll implement it how we determine the ordinance should be implemented.”

Acosta-Galvan was clearly not convinced that the amendment was the right move.

“I don’t know how I could possibly recommend to City Council to pursue a zoning text amendment that would place us in so much jeopardy with the state,” she said. “We had a substantially compliant housing element that HCD informed us they would most likely approve, and we wouldn’t be in this boat if we had passed that.”

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