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California and Huntington Beach sue each other over housing again

San Francisco Chronicle 3/9/2023 Sophia Bollag

SACRAMENTO — California and Huntington Beach are suing each other over state housing laws once again.

Attorney General Rob Bonta and Gov. Gavin Newsom announced their lawsuit on Thursday, arguing the Huntington Beach City Council’s vote last month to stop processing applications from homeowners who want to build additional units on their property violates state laws that permit such units.

Hours later, Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates announced the city had filed its own lawsuit against the state, arguing it doesn’t have to follow state housing laws in the first place.

This is the second time the state and the coastal Southern California city have sued each other over housing. Newsom initiated his first lawsuit against Huntington Beach during his first month in office in 2019, arguing the city wasn’t planning to build enough low-income units. The lawsuit sought to enforce a different state law that requires cities to plan for enough housing to accommodate population growth. Huntington Beach settled with the state when it approved a compliant housing plan. The city also lost the previous lawsuit it filed against California that argued it did not have to follow state housing laws.

“Here we go again. In 2019, they pulled the same stunt. They lost,” Newsom said during a news conference announcing the new lawsuit. “They will lose again.”

The state’s lawsuit was filed in Orange County Superior Court on Wednesday, according to Bonta’s office.

Shortly after state leaders announced the lawsuit, Huntington Beach’s Twitter account posted a message saying the city would resume accepting applications for accessory dwelling units

Gates said the state’s lawsuit against the city is a “symbolic bullying tactic,” and is premature because the council plans to vote on issues related to its housing plan and how it will address accessory dwelling units at a meeting later this month. He said the city filed its own lawsuit against the state Thursday, and said it’s not clear the city needs to follow state housing laws in the first place.

The tweet from the city saying that accessory dwelling unit applications would be accepted in the meantime was not in response to the state lawsuit, he said, but rather to questions from residents.

“That was just bad timing,” he said of the tweet. “It had nothing to do with the lawsuit.”

Bonta said the City Council’s decision last month to ban additional units violated SB 9, the law passed in 2021 that allows up to four units to be built on a single-family lot, other laws allowing residents to build accessory dwelling units and residents’ rights.

“Huntington Beach has decided to slam the door in homeowners’ faces,” Bonta said.

He hinted that the state could take further action against the city if it continues to defy state housing policies, as elected officials there have threatened to do.

The California Legislature has passed laws in recent years, including SB 9, to force cities to build housing to address the state’s housing shortage.

In the lawsuit it filed in federal court Thursday, Huntington Beach argues that state housing laws infringe on its elected officials’ free-speech rights “in tyrannical fashion” by forcing them to approve plans to build housing that they don’t like.

Before he was elected governor in 2018, Newsom campaigned on an ambitious goal of building 3.5 million new homes by 2025. Four years into his governorship, the state is far behind.

On average, fewer than 125,000 new homes are built in California each year, Bonta said.

The lawsuit is an example of the progress Newsom says is being made by his housing department’s new accountability unit, which works with local governments to ensure they are complying with state housing law and monitors actions like the ones taken in Huntington Beach. 

Staff in Huntington Beach have cooperated with the Newsom administration, said Gustavo Velasquez, who directs the governor’s Housing and Community Development Department. It’s the elected officials who are the problem, he said.

At their news conference, state leaders featured the story of Southern California resident Ty Youngblood, who wanted to build an accessory dwelling unit on his 82-year-old mother’s Huntington Beach property so he could move there to help care for her. Youngblood said he took out a loan for more than $250,000 and did the prep work to develop plans and have the property evaluated before the council voted to defy the state’s law allowing such units.

“The recent and sudden ban by the City Council has thrown our plans into disarray,” Youngblood said.

Reach Sophia Bollag:; Twitter: @SophiaBollag

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