The State vs. The City

Lack of affordable housing in California’s Huntington Beach leads to a lawsuit

Lack of affordable housing in California’s Huntington Beach leads to a lawsuit

“California’s housing crisis is an existential threat to our state’s future and demands an urgent and comprehensive response.”  This bold proclamation was issued by Gavin Newsom, the newly elected governor of California, and he’s right. The cost of living in California is an upward curve, with two in five households spending over 30 percent of their income on housing. This statement came alongside a lawsuit filed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, on Newsom’s behalf against the Huntington Beach City Council over repeatedly voting down a measure to create low-income and high-density housing within their affluent community. Pushback against cities choosing not to follow state laws is not a new concept. But when the state government takes legal action on seemingly local issues, the stakes get even higher.  

In late November, the California Department of Housing and Community Development alerted the city once again that due to their noncompliance, there would be a pullback in funding for existing housing plans. This is not Huntington Beach’s first battle with the state over their non-compliance for affordable housing. In 2015, the Huntington Beach City Council reduced the amount of housing allowed for development along two major streets by over 2,000 homes. This came after complaints by residents who, “want[ed] to keep the culture and flavor of [their] community,” as reported by the Orange County Register. Although this statement may seem shocking to some, the resident is correct in that new housing would influence the way the beachside city will look. According to the 2017 US Census, 74.6% of the population is white, with the median household income at $88,079 and the mean household income at $115,884. Something to note is that although the current poverty rate is relatively low at 8.94%, almost 90% of those in poverty are minority groups. The installation of low-income housing would attract those who may not have previously been able to afford to live in Huntington Beach, which in turn would impact the demographics within the city. This decision by the city meant there was no longer enough land-zoned space to accommodate low-income residents, prompting a lawsuit filed by housing activists. An appellate court ruled in Huntington Beach's favor.

Although unusual, this case was not unexpected. Legal action, although rare, has been used by the state against local government over housing laws. The most prominent example, in 2009, was when Attorney General Jerry Brown joined in a suit filed by an environmental justice group against the city of Pleasanton when voters had capped the amount of housing allowed. This was met with Pleasonton paying out $2 million and wiping any trace of a voter-approved housing cap from its records in the settlement. If the city had not settled when it did, it could have faced litigation costs in excess of $4 million and possibly three other lawsuits surrounding housing discrimination and the environment by the California Department of Housing and Community Development and the state attorney general.

In the letter released by the department, it was made clear that Assembly Bill No. 72 , which took effect in Jan. 2018, would allow them to refer to the lack of action on mandatory elements as a violation of state law. As a result, the state is allowed to sue. Unlike the suit in 2009, the state did not need a so-called middle man, which in Pleasanton's case was an environmental justice group. Rather, if the department did not receive a local agency response of compliance to state housing laws in a thirty day time period of communication, the Office of the Attorney General would be made certain of the findings and conduct action as a result.  From the state’s perspective, they feel that they now have the ability to be more proactive in limiting the continuously dwindling affordable housing supply. The residents of Huntington Beach feel targeted. In a statement released by Huntington Beach Attorney Michael Gates, he disputes the legal validity with claims that their city is one of fifty that hasn’t met regional housing needs based on an unconstitutional mandate “that strip[s] the city’s constitutionally protected charter authority with respect to local zoning ‘municipal affairs’”, and “raises the question about the motivation for this lawsuit filed only against Huntington Beach.

According to the Huntington Beach 2013-2021 Housing Element, which has since been removed from the official city website records, the city’s Regional Housing Need Allocation called for 2,092 permits between 2008 and 2014. They called for less than half. This lawsuit was filed particularly due to the fact that that the city was intentionally lagging in the building process. As a result, many were forced to move away from the places where they may work or go to school, allowing the beachside city to maintain its homogenous community. The fact that the city has such a dismissive approach surrounding the seriousness of housing can be attributed to the reason that the state was forced to go to this extent. If the state allowed the local government to continue on the track that they were going, the city would perpetuate its homogenous culture and socioeconomic divide between those who reside within the city and those who simply cannot.