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Housing and Homelessness

California's Attorney General Says Pasadena Is Violating State Housing Law

Aerial view above Pasadena neighborhood with mountain on the background.
The state’s top lawyer told Pasadena it is unlawfully restricting duplexes in “landmark districts.”
(Thomas De Wever
Getty Images/iStockphoto)
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California’s top lawyer has told the city of Pasadena it is unlawfully blocking new housing through an ordinance adopted last December. The city could face a lawsuit from the state if it doesn’t reverse course.

“We request that the city take prompt action to repeal and/or amend the ordinance to be consistent with state law,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a warning letter sent to Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo on Tuesday.

The dispute centers on SB 9, a state law that took effect this year allowing homeowners to create up to four units of housing on lots previously reserved for just one home. State lawmakers intended the law to increase density — in the form of duplexes and backyard homes — in single-family neighborhoods that have historically resisted new housing.

Pasadena’s ordinance, adopted last December, exempts areas of the city designated as “landmark districts” from SB 9.

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Bonta said the ordinance is “designed to circumvent” the state law, and is blocking “sorely needed” new housing during a statewide housing crisis. He said his office is prepared to hold cities accountable for violating the law.

Gordo told us Pasadena will take another look at its December ordinance. But he defended the city’s protections for areas deemed to have unique historic or architectural value.

“We have created upwards of 30 landmark districts,” Gordo said. “These landmark districts were created long before SB 9 discussions even started.”

Pasadena’s Bungalow Heaven, which features many small craftsman homes built in the early 20th century, was the first neighborhood to receive “landmark district” status in 1989.

Housing advocates say Pasadena isn’t the only city using historic designation as a way to exempt certain neighborhoods from SB 9. They say Bonta’s letter signals that the state is taking a tougher approach to cities that resist new housing.

“We're very encouraged to see the attorney general actively going after cities now and not just letting them get away with it,” said Greg Magofña, director of development and outreach at the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund.

This isn’t the attorney general’s first warning to local governments over compliance with state housing laws. Last month, the wealthy Silicon Valley town of Woodside reversed course on designating itself a mountain lion habitat after Bonta said the move was clearly an attempt to sidestep SB 9.

What questions do you have about housing in Southern California?

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