In the News
Mar 20, 2023
Housing Element Fallout: From Noncompliance to Lawsuits
Mar 20, 2023
By Daniel J. Turner, published by Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP
The January 31, 2023 deadline for Bay Area cities and counties to revise and update their Housing Elements has passed, and only four of the Bay Area’s 109 local jurisdictions – San Francisco, City of Alameda, Emeryville, and San Leandro – have adopted fully compliant Housing Elements so far. While many of the Bay Area’s other jurisdictions have made substantial progress toward updating their Housing Elements, others have shown little effort in meeting their obligations under the state’s Housing Element Law. State law imposes a number of potential enforcement penalties and consequences on jurisdictions that fail to comply with the Housing Element Law, including the oft-discussed “Builder’s Remedy”, and housing advocacy groups have started turning to the courts to enforce these provisions against noncompliant jurisdictions.
California’s Housing Element Law was enacted in 1969 and is intended to encourage housing development by requiring cities and counties to adopt Housing Elements as part of their General Plans. A Housing Element is a jurisdiction’s detailed plan for the development of housing within its borders, and it must meet various statutory requirements, such as identifying adequate development sites to meet the jurisdiction’s allocated housing need, creating programs to incentivize the production of affordable housing units, and describing the necessary measures to implement the plan. To achieve compliance with the law, the Housing Element must also receive certification from the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) before the jurisdiction’s statutorily determined deadline. A jurisdiction that fails to do so is considered out of compliance and is exposed to certain penalties and other enforcement mechanisms until it adopts a compliant Housing Element.
Penalties for Non-Compliance
Among the potential consequence for noncompliance is the notorious Builder’s Remedy. Under the Builder’s Remedy, a jurisdiction is prohibited from denying an affordable housing project based on the project’s noncompliance with the jurisdiction’s General Plan or Zoning Ordinance. It effectively frees such projects from all local zoning and development controls, unless the jurisdiction can justify project modifications or disapproval by articulating specific, adverse impacts to health or safety. To qualify for the Builder’s Remedy, a project must provide either 20% of units as affordable to ≤80% AMI households (low-income), or 100% of units as affordable to ≤120% AMI households (moderate-income). While potentially very powerful, it should be noted that the Builder’s Remedy has had minimal real-world testing, with sparingly few examples of successfully entitled projects.
Beyond the Builder’s Remedy, a noncompliant jurisdiction can experience a variety of other consequences. For example, a jurisdiction that does not become compliant within 120 days of missing its deadline is subject to tighter implementation and rezoning timelines once it does adopt a compliant Housing Element. Further, as long as a jurisdiction remains noncompliant, it may be subject to other statutory or judicial losses of zoning and permitting authority, it may be liable for court-imposed fines, and it may have reduced access to state funding and grants for housing, infrastructure, and municipal operations.
Current Status of Bay Area Jurisdictions
The 105 remaining Bay Area jurisdictions – beyond those four listed above – are in various states of noncompliance with the Housing Element Law. These jurisdictions range from those that have made substantial progress toward compliance and are undergoing review and certification by the HCD, to those jurisdictions that have barely begun preliminary drafts.
Oakland, the Bay Area’s third-largest city, is among those jurisdictions that did not achieve compliance by the deadline after its Housing Element was denied certification on February 3rd. Despite having already undergone multiple revisions since it was first submitted in December 2022, a number of technical deficiencies were identified in Oakland’s Housing Element and HCD requested further edits. HCD’s denial letter to Oakland also commended the city’s overall efforts in completing the process. Oakland resubmitted its Housing Element on February 13th, and it is currently pending review.
According to the HCD’s Housing Element Review and Compliance Report (as of 2/14/23), approximately 34 Bay Area jurisdictions are in a similar situation to Oakland’s, with an adopted Housing Element that is currently awaiting review and certification by the HCD. About three-fourths of these jurisdictions submitted their Housing Elements on or within a few days of the January 31st deadline, and given this large influx, the HCD’s review timeline is uncertain. While technically out of compliance, these jurisdictions are unlikely to experience the more severe enforcement consequences due to the substantial amount of progress they have already made and the high likelihood of achieving compliance within the next few months.
Based on the Compliance Report, another 59 jurisdictions have submitted an initial or subsequent draft Housing Element to HCD for review but have not yet adopted it. Because the adoption process includes environmental review, public participation, and multiple hearings, these jurisdictions have a longer road ahead of them (although it will vary greatly for each individual jurisdiction). A further 12 jurisdictions have not yet submitted anything to HCD and may not have even begun the drafting process.
Housing Advocacy Group Lawsuits
In response to the numerous jurisdictions that failed to meet the Housing Element deadline, housing advocacy groups, including YIMBY Law, California Housing Defense Fund, and Californians for Homeownership, have started filing lawsuits against those jurisdictions that are furthest out of compliance. These lawsuits are requesting that the court compel each jurisdiction to bring its respective Housing Element into compliance and are asking the court to impose additional sanctions available to the court under the Housing Element Law, which range from fines to removal of permitting authority. Further, each lawsuit is seeking a judgment declaration regarding the provisions of the Builder’s Remedy, with the apparent intent of laying the groundwork for developers to take advantage of it without having to face extraneous judicial challenges.
It is unknown whether these advocacy groups will expand their current litigation efforts, and it remains to be seen whether any developers will actually employ the Builder’s Remedy at risk of garnering the ire of local agencies for future projects. However, these lawsuits may provide helpful insight in how the courts – and the cities themselves – will respond to the various enforcement mechanisms enacted over the past few years.