Huntington Beach to appeal $3.5M Kennedy Commission ruling to state Supreme Court

City Atty. Michael Gates listens to public comments during a Huntington Beach City Council meeting last year.
City Atty. Michael Gates listens to public comments during a Huntington Beach City Council meeting last year.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Huntington Beach is appealing last month’s state appellate court ruling that it owes Irvine-based nonprofit the Kennedy Commission, which works to increase affordable housing, about $3.5 million in attorney fees.

The matter will now be decided by the California Supreme Court.

Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates announced Tuesday night that the City Council had unanimously voted in closed session to appeal last month’s three-judge panel ruling, related to a lawsuit the Kennedy Commission first filed in 2015.

Gates said in a recent phone interview that the Court of Appeal got it wrong in the May 11 ruling. He said the ruling stated that the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) numbers applied to Huntington Beach when the lawsuit was originally filed.


“That’s categorically false,” he said. “We know this, because the state Legislature passed SB 1333, which went into effect in 2019. Well, guess what SB 1333 did? It made charter cities subject to the RHNA laws ... The state Legislature, by passing SB 1333 and signing it into law, that’s an admission that Huntington Beach as a charter city was not subject to the RHNA laws [before that].”

He added that there were other factual errors, some of them having to do with incorrect names, in the opinion itself.

It’s been a long and winding road to get to this point in the case.

The original Kennedy Commission lawsuit, from 2015, arose from Huntington Beach’s adoption of an amendment of the Beach and Edinger Corridors Specific Plan. The Kennedy Commission argued that reducing the number of permitted housing units in the Beach-Edinger area from 4,500 to 2,100 violated state housing law.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge found in favor of the Kennedy Commission later that year, but the California Fourth District Court of Appeal backed Huntington Beach in 2017. The California Supreme Court denied the Kennedy Commission’s subsequent appeal in 2018.

The state of California joined in by suing the city over housing in 2019, claiming that Huntington Beach was deliberately blocking new housing development. But Surf City adopted a revised housing element the following year, including plans for 502 low-income housing units. That was eventually certified by the California Department of Housing and Community Development as substantially compliant with housing element law.

Having satisfied its objectives, the Kennedy Commission filed for attorney fees, arguing that its push helped Huntington Beach meet the state mandates. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Stern agreed, awarding $3.5 million in attorney fees in July 2021.

“Without the private enforcement action by Kennedy Commission, the future availability for low-income housing in the city and beyond would have been greatly different,” Stern said in part of his ruling.

The Court of Appeal decision from last month upholds Stern’s ruling.

The Kennedy Commission executive director Cesar Covarrubias applauded that decision.

“This decision is a win for families who are struggling to pay their housing costs and underscores the need for each city to do its part to address the statewide affordable housing crisis,” Covarrubias said in a statement. “It is critical that advocates and city officials work together to ensure that all California residents have a safe and affordable place to live.”

The battle for affordable housing in Huntington Beach remains ongoing, however, as wars with Sacramento rage on.

In March, Gates filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that state housing laws, including RHNA requirements, violate the city’s rights to zone property. And the current City Council, which has a conservative majority, voted against passing a compliant housing element for the current cycle in April.