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Why California Is Suing Its Own Cities

In one of his first moves as governor, Gavin Newsom is taking some cities to court for failing to address the affordable housing crisis.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom at a podium.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom
Not many governors decide to sue a city in their state within a few weeks of taking office. Gavin Newsom, the new Democratic governor of California, however, did just that, signaling his seriousness about addressing the state’s chronic but worsening housing shortage.

Under a 2017 state law, California cities and counties are required to include, as part of their long-term plans, a “housing element for the preservation, improvement and development of housing.” About 10 percent of the cities in the state have failed to do so. With his lawsuit, Newsom went after the biggest of these, Huntington Beach in Orange County, south of Los Angeles.

Housing activists are delighted. California has passed any number of robust housing laws over the years, but very little has been done in terms of enforcement. In addition to the lawsuit, Newsom has threatened to withhold transportation dollars from cities that fail to play by the required development rules. “If there’s no sticks, then these laws don’t mean anything, which has been the tradition around these state laws,” says Laura Clark, who directs YIMBY Action, a San Francisco group that pushes for more housing construction. “The local jurisdictions just ignore them and there’s no consequences.”

Newsom has continued to pound at the idea that lack of action will now have real consequences. He called out noncompliant cities in his State of the State address and has been meeting with local officials to make sure they’re ready to get with the program. Huntington Beach officials have, of course, complained about the lawsuit, describing its contentions as factually inaccurate. Other cities on Newsom’s list of scofflaws point to extenuating circumstances that prevent them from acting, such as a shortage of land available for development due to industrial contamination.

For the most part, however, mayors recognize that the governor has the upper hand. They are looking for ways to collaborate with him, if only to avoid lawsuits. And Newsom suggests that he has no interest in suing localities that are acting in good faith. Cities may have any number of reasons not to be in compliance with the housing element requirement, says Carolyn Coleman, executive director of the League of California Cities, but they share the goal of getting more housing built. “We applaud the thought of having a governor who wants to partner with cities to address a challenge that we identified several years ago,” she says.

In addition to sticks, Newsom is dangling big carrots in front of localities. His first budget request includes more than $2 billion for housing and homeless programs, with a sizable share intended to assist local governments with planning. “He’s put a lot of money in the budget for affordable housing, for planning money for cities and reward money for cities that are meeting their housing goals,” says state Sen. Scott Wiener. 

Wiener notes that the vast majority of California cities do have housing plans in place, yet many of them fall short of meeting those goals. Housing costs continue to rise, in part due to strong job growth and the state’s off-the-charts construction costs, but also because high-demand locations often seem to go out of their way to block new multiunit projects. 

A proposed apartment building in San Francisco’s gentrifying Mission District has been held up for more than a year, first out of concern for the possible loss of an old laundromat that might be granted historic status and more recently for fear the building will cast shadows on a school playground. Much more modest developments have been held up or rejected in other crowded cities. 

When Newsom set a campaign goal of building 3.5 million additional units over the next seven years, even cheerleaders for more housing wondered whether such an astronomical number could possibly amount to more than just campaign puffery. The odds are that Newsom will fall far short of reaching such a goal, but his lawsuit and his desire to devote serious dollars to housing suggest that the state might finally see real progress.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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