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'They Asked for This': California Sues Huntington Beach for Flouting Laws Meant to Ease Housing Crisis

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An aerial view of housing along a canal waterway with the beach and ocean in the background.
Inland canal waterway development in Huntington Beach, which was first sued by the state in 2019 for failing to adopt a state-approved housing plan. The latest lawsuit centers on votes the City Council took in February to stop processing applications for backyard cottages, along with applications for new duplexes and lot splits, the latter of which were legalized for most urban properties under Senate Bill 9. (Steve Proehl/Getty Images)

Calling Huntington Beach “Exhibit A in what’s wrong with housing in California,” Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Attorney General Rob Bonta in filing a lawsuit against the oceanside community in Orange County for flouting laws designed to ease the state’s affordability crisis.

Bonta called the city’s actions “blatant, egregious, brazen” and said his office is also filing a motion for a preliminary injunction to block it from imposing bans on certain types of new housing.

“The city had ample notice and time to course correct. Instead, they chose a path that led us right where we are today,” Bonta said during a livestreamed press conference Thursday. “They have asked for this, and they have earned this.”

The escalation comes as Newsom and his administration are ramping up efforts to hold cities accountable for reaching the state’s housing goal of 2.5 million new homes and apartments by 2031. But getting there requires overcoming backlash from some local leaders, who must implement the laws locally.

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Santa Monica land use attorney Dave Rand compared Huntington Beach to the Confederacy — acting like it wants to secede from California.

“That is not a solution,” Rand said, adding that he thought the city’s legal claim was unwinnable. “They will be forced to submit to the same laws that they're attempting to fight now, except pay fines and be embarrassed and held out as a pariah when it comes to trying to house people in California.”

In response to the state’s action Thursday, Huntington Beach filed its own lawsuit against California in federal court. The city’s 59-page complaint challenges California’s right to force them to build more housing, a move UC Davis law professor Chris Elmendorf called “frivolous.”

“While there is maybe an argument you could make about the state constitution, there's really no argument you can make that there's anything the state is doing that violates any federal law, even if you get a rogue judge,” Elmendorf said. “I think it's political posturing.”

The state first sued the city in 2019 for failing to adopt a state-approved housing plan, which is required every eight years. Huntington Beach initially claimed it should be exempt as a charter city, but ultimately settled the case out of court after losing access to state funds for its homelessness response programs.

The latest skirmish centers on votes the Huntington Beach City Council took in February to stop processing applications for backyard cottages, along with applications for new duplexes and lot splits, the latter of which were legalized for most urban properties under Senate Bill 9.

Ty Youngblood said at Thursday’s press conference his own family’s plans to build a backyard cottage for his aging mother have been thwarted by the council’s decision. His family took out a loan in excess of $250,000 for the project and was preparing architectural designs when he learned of the vote.

Not only is his family paying interest on the loan with no guarantee they’ll be able to build, but he said the uncertainty has added considerable stress.

“My mother is … 82 years old,” he said. “We thought it was a good idea that I try to get back home to be able to support her as she gets older. And this decision by the City Council … it was nonsensical.”

The backyard cottages and duplexes are part of a broader campaign by Newsom and lawmakers to reverse decades of underproduction in housing, which they said has led to some of the highest home prices and rents in the nation.

“We recognize we need to do more, better as a state to address the original sin that is affordability,” Newsom said Thursday. “It's directly connected with the issues that drive so much of our frustration with the Golden State.”

But, at a March 7 City Council meeting, Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland framed the votes as taking a stand to defend the suburban nature of the city.

“When people say I'm a NIMBY, I can't believe that because I've never been accused of that in my entire life,” Strickland said. “What I am against is the urbanization of a wonderful suburban community.”

The city also introduced a proposal to exempt itself from the "builder’s remedy" — a decades-old law that allows developers to override a city’s local zoning rules if the state has not yet approved a city’s housing plan, which is due every eight years.

Huntington Beach was required to submit its most recent plan in Oct. 2022 for how it would accommodate more than 13,000 new homes and apartments by 2031. It’s one of 246 jurisdictions across California that does not yet have a compliant housing plan and are thus subject to the builder’s remedy.

Jessamyn Garner, spokesperson for housing advocacy organization YIMBY Action, lives in Huntington Beach and said the council’s actions to limit development have led to rising housing costs, which make it hard for working-class residents to remain in the city.

“The actions from the City Council are really just sending the message that they don't want renters and young families and seniors and teachers to live in the community,” Garner said. “But working people deserve to live in the community.”

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