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State and Local Tensions Mount Over California Housing Policy

Local leaders are pushing back against California’s new housing laws and a newly announced housing strike force. Some worry about the loss of single-family communities, while others want more housing for low-income and homeless populations.

(TNS) — Growing tension over California's state intervention in local housing policy is likely to further escalate in the coming year as state officials ramp up their enforcement of laws that aim to boost production while opponents pursue a constitutional amendment to wrest back authority.

Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Wednesday a new housing strike force within the California Department of Justice, a 12-member team that he said would address the state's affordability crisis by enforcing development and tenant rights laws.

That could include more lawsuits against local governments that state officials believe are not making a genuine effort to plan for and approve enough housing to accommodate future growth — a strategy first pursued with a 2019 case to force the Orange County city of Huntington Beach to set aside additional sites for low-income housing.

"That's certainly an area of interest and an area where we can be more involved," Bonta said during a virtual news conference. "We will be looking at cities to see if they are meeting their obligations under the law."

He declined to discuss any potential or pending investigations, but added, "Stay tuned. This is a strike force of action with an intent to be involved and to use the tools that we have in our toolbox."

Starting in January, Bonta will have expanded authority to pursue legal action against local governments that violate recent laws to speed up regulatory reviews; require cities that have not fulfilled their state housing targets to approve projects that meet certain zoning, design and affordability standards; prohibit policies to reduce development in communities without enough housing; and make it easier to build services-oriented navigation centers for homeless people, among others.

Major legislation over the past few years has aimed to streamline the approval process for massive developments, backyard cottages and duplex conversions, removing some veto power from local governments in an effort to make it easier and cheaper to produce all types of housing that California needs to address its shortage.

Many of these measures were the subject of intense legislative battles between supporters who believe the state must intervene to lower the barriers to building much-needed housing when local officials refuse to act, and cities and homeowner groups, particularly in suburban and coastal areas, who fear losing control over how their communities develop.

As the state has ramped up pressure on local governments to build more homes, with dozens of new laws passed in recent years, the backlash has intensified.

The Secretary of State's Office on Monday cleared proponents to begin gathering signatures for a state constitutional amendment to give local land-use decisions precedence over state law when they are in conflict. They must collect signatures from more than 997,000 registered voters by May to place their measure on the November ballot next year.

John Heath — the co-founder of a homeowners association for the wealthy, predominantly Black neighborhoods of Windsor Hills, View Park and View Heights in Los Angeles County, which submitted the constitutional amendment — said he was concerned about the state "obliterating single-family communities" by jamming in more development over their objections. He said requiring density everywhere would not lead to the affordability that lawmakers are seeking.

"What is so bad and what's going on where the folks in Sacramento think we have to silence all of the folks in the community here?" Heath said.

The campaign is supported by AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a Los Angeles nonprofit behind unsuccessful statewide rent-control ballot initiatives in the past two election cycles, which has fought some of the new housing laws for not including stricter requirements for affordable or homeless units.

The announcement of the attorney general's housing strike force comes just weeks after the formal launch of an accountability unit within the California Department of Housing and Community Development, which will provide technical assistance to cities and counties as they zone for and permit new housing, while taking enforcement steps against those that fall short of their state goals. These programs reflect the heightened seriousness with which Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration now regards stagnant development rates that continue to be about half what the state estimates is necessary each year.

"We are not asking people to do the impossible," Bonta said. "When you don't do the very possible simply because you don't want to do it, there's going to be consequences."

Carolyn Coleman, executive director and CEO of the League of California Cities, slammed Bonta for "demonizing all cities for things they do not control" and characterized his strike force as part of "the state's scattershot approach" to housing policy that has only made it more difficult to increase supply.

"If the state is looking for a real solution to this decades-in-the-making housing crisis, we urge a pause on unproven top-down state mandates and enforcement policies and call on the state to work as a true partner with local governments to get housing built for all Californians," she said in a statement.

(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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