BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
In California’s 172 years as an American state, relations between its government and the more than 400 cities within state boundaries have never been as contested and hostile and litigated as now.
Dozens of cities in most parts of the state are out of compliance today with a 1960s-era law signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan requiring them to file housing plans every eight years with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), which can reject any blueprint it does not like.
Meanwhile, the state is trying to use the longstanding law to force construction of dense new housing everywhere, no matter how it might change the nature of any community.
In places that have either filed no plans or had them disapproved and missed deadlines for revisions, developers can use a previously obscure and unused provision of the old law known as the “builders’ remedy” to build even where cities have previously stopped them, so long as they include enough low-income or affordable units.
What’s affordable or low-income varies by location.
All this appears to some to conflict with the concept of a charter city – and more than one-fourth of California’s cities have charters. State law gives charter cities “the power to make and enforce all laws and regulations in respect to municipal affairs, subject only to such restrictions and limitations as may be provided in…the (state) Constitution…”
But both Gov. Gavin Newsom and his hand-picked state attorney general Rob Bonta say statewide law overrides city charters, letting legislators mandate whatever they wish wherever they wish.
Today’s focal points in this classic conflict are two very dissimilar cities, one in coastal Orange County and the other on the San Francisco Peninsula – Huntington Beach (sometimes known as “Surf City”) and Atherton, usually listed as the wealthiest city in America.
It would be hard to fine places more different in many ways than these two. Huntington Beach, besides its surfing orientation, hosted some of the first and largest anti-masking and anti-vaccine rallies of the coronavirus pandemic period.
Atherton features stately residences, most on lots of one acre or more, and has been home to the likes of athletes from Y.A. Tittle to Stephen Curry, financiers like venture capitalist Tim Draper (an early investor in outfits from Skype to Hotmail and Tesla) and politicians like former gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman, a Republican, and Steve Westly, a Democrat.
With just over 7,000 residents, Atherton has been told by the state to allow almost 350 new housing units by the end of this decade. Curry objected to one proposed new development, and city officials at one point suggested the city could meet its quotas if every property owner added an additional dwelling unit (sometimes known as ADUs or granny flats).
Local residents at one town council meeting told elected officials they want their officials to be more aggressive in fighting off the state. “If you’re not comfortable fighting for us, then you should step down,” said one.
Huntington Beach residents and officials take a similar attitude, despite being Bonta’s first and best-publicized target, with millions of dollars in state grants at risk in their defiance.
“We have no problem doing our fair share, but with fair numbers,” Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark said during a public meeting. “I do not believe the benefits of building outweigh the consequences of destroying our city.”
It’s not actual destruction of any city that’s in prospect, merely destruction of the ambiance in some places.
Numbers are key here. The state uses quotas generated by HCD, whose estimates of the state’s housing need have never accounted for homes vacated by the hundreds of thousands of Californians who moved elsewhere in the last six years, costing this state one seat in Congress. Housing need estimates have varied widely since 2017, from 3.5 million in 2018 to 1.8 million more recently.
Nor, according to a 2022 state auditor’s report, has HCD properly vetted documents on which it bases its estimates.
Both Bonta and Newsom ignore the varying estimates and the city charter issue.
Which leaves the entire matter far from decided, no matter what state officials may claim at any given moment.