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Housing and Homelessness

California’s Attorney General Is Suing Huntington Beach For Blocking New Housing

A view of a low-lying city area with a beach on the right and streets largely vacant. Palm trees line street and park areas.
An aerial view of Huntington Beach.
(Apu Gomes
AFP via Getty Images)
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California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a new lawsuit on Thursday targeting the city of Huntington Beach for violating state housing law.

Despite multiple warning letters from the state attorney general’s office, the Huntington Beach City Council recently voted 4-3 to stop processing permit applications for new backyard homes known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

“The laws are clear, as is Huntington Beach’s willful, intentional refusal to follow them,” Bonta said. “That’s why we’re in court, challenging the city’s unlawful actions and asking the court to suspend their enforcement while our lawsuit continues.”

Huntington Beach officials responded to the state’s action by announcing their own separate lawsuit challenging the state’s authority to establish local housing goals.

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“[The] mandates brought down by the state to Huntington Beach are not mandates at all,” said Michael Gates, Huntington Beach’s city attorney.

City’s ban thwarts a family’s plan to reunite

In recent years, new state laws have made it easier for homeowners throughout California to build detached, secondary housing units on their properties. Elderly parents or adult children who cannot afford Southern California’s high housing costs often live in these ADUs, also known as granny flats.

During a press conference to announce the state’s lawsuit, Corona resident Ty Youngblood said his family has invested significant time and money on plans to build an ADU on his 82-year-old mother’s property in Huntington Beach, allowing the family to live together on one lot.

“However, the recent and sudden ban on ADUs by the city council has thrown our plans into disarray, leaving us with uncertain futures and accruing debt,” Youngblood said.

Huntington Beach processed about 100 ADU applications last year, before the ban took effect last month.

“People want these,” said Dan Kalmick, a Huntington Beach city councilmember who voted against the ADU ban. “This is a property rights issue. Our conservative majority is now stripping residents of their property rights.”

Other state laws have allowed homeowners to build duplexes or split lots to create up to four housing units. Kalmick pushed his fellow councilmembers to continue processing ADU and duplex applications in compliance with state law, but his proposals were voted down.

“We need housing in Huntington Beach,” Kalmick said. “I'd prefer that we do it ourselves and not be forced into doing it by the state.”

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On Thursday, Huntington Beach’s public information office said the city is now accepting ADU applications again, but that the city council will take another vote later this month on how to handle such applications.

Mayor plans to defend 'private property-owning communities’

Several Huntington Beach councilmembers have called ADUs a form of “radical redevelopment” that threatens the “quality and lifestyle” of residential neighborhoods.

In response to the attorney general’s lawsuit, Mayor Tony Strickland said he believes the state’s goal is to “urbanize quiet, private property-owning communities.”

“I am committed to defend the city’s wonderful property owners who enjoy this quiet, suburban beach town,” he said.

Huntington Beach’s lawsuit against the state, also announced on Thursday, challenges Sacramento’s authority to require cities to plan to add new housing every eight years, which advocates see as a key tool in combating the state’s housing affordability crisis.

That state housing requirement has recently shifted new development away from Southern California’s Inland Empire and toward wealthy, coastal communities. Under those rules, Huntington Beach must plan for more than 13,000 new housing units by 2029. The city has not yet approved a plan to meet that goal.

“The state is overreaching and piercing our local control, especially as a charter city,” said Councilmember Casey McKeon on LAist's AirTalk show Thursday. McKeon voted for the ADU application ban and supports the city’s lawsuit against the state. “We have extra protections codified in the California state constitution.”

Elizabeth Hansburg, the co-founder of People For Housing Orange County and an advocate for new housing production, said, “[Huntington Beach] has stood in the way of increasing housing supply because of what I describe as a misplaced nostalgia.”

Hansburg said efforts to preserve Huntington Beach as a “little beach town” and keep it off-limits for new development will only lead to more young families getting priced out and the city’s workers continuing to commute from far-flung cheaper areas.

“It makes it very hard for there to be any mobility,” she said.

What about the ‘builder’s remedy?'

The Huntington Beach city council also voted recently to attempt to block the “builder’s remedy,” a legal approach that allows developers to advance state-approved housing projects in cities that have failed to comply with state housing law.

In other parts of California where developers have already invoked the builder’s remedy, projects have turned out much larger in scope than what cities would have approved if they had maintained control of the development process.

Gustavo Velasquez, director of the California Department of Housing & Community Development, said if Huntington Beach continues its efforts to block the builder’s remedy, “We will add that to the lawsuit as well.”

This is not the first time Sacramento has tussled with Huntington Beach over the city’s opposition to housing development. In 2019, the state sued the city over failures to set aside sufficient land for new housing, as required by state law. The city lost that lawsuit.

Huntington Beach has become a hotbed of conservative opposition to California’s Democratic leadership. The city saw frequent protests against COVID-19 public health policies, and the newly elected city council recently voted to ban the rainbow LGBTQ pride flag on city property.

In the press conference announcing the state’s lawsuit, Gov. Gavin Newsom made his thoughts on the city’s actions clear.

“Huntington Beach is exhibit A in what's wrong with housing in the state of California,” Newsom said. “They are not representing the people they claim to represent. This is a waste of time, and they're wasting taxpayer money.”

Huntington Beach has frequently been in the state’s crosshairs, but it’s not the only SoCal city to run afoul of Sacramento regulators. Last year, the state attorney general’s office called out the city of Pasadena over its plans to exempt dozens of “landmark district” neighborhoods from a new state housing law.

What questions do you have about housing in Southern California?

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