California is already planning for its next affordable housing allocation cycle, but almost half of the state’s cities have not complied with their current mandated housing elements.
A flurry of lawsuits from both sides of the issue have cropped up over the state’s housing laws, illustrating a climate in which the state pushes for more affordable housing while cities say they are being overburdened.
As of March 2023, 46 percent of California jurisdictions are not in compliance with their current Regional Housing Needs Allocations (RHNA), including Coronado, which must zone for 912 additional housing units. In December, California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) sent a letter warning Coronado it could face fines or litigation if it did not comply.
City and HCD officials met virtually on Feb. 8, and again in Coronado on March 13 to discuss potential solutions. The HCD declined to comment on the content of those meetings.
“We respect the housing crisis facing California and statewide efforts to identify opportunities for more housing,” Coronado City Manager Tina Friend said. “Coronado has been steadily working with the Department of Housing and Community Development to reach a compliant Housing Element Update and fulfill the current RHNA.”
Coronado worked with the HCD to build a realistic timeline for updating the city’s housing element update, said Andrea McCullough, the city’s communications and engagement officer. Once a draft of the update is complete, it will be placed on a city council agenda for discussion, she said.
Lawsuits from both sides
Meanwhile, Huntington Beach and the State of California have threatened or filed separate lawsuits against one another over housing.
The state’s lawsuit alleges that the city is breaking multiple of the state’s affordable housing laws, including refusing to process accessory dwelling unit permit applications and refusing to comply with the 13,368 housing units mandated in its RHNA.
(Coronado faced a similar lawsuit about its ADU applications, which was decided in favor of the city but is currently in appeals.)
Huntington Beach’s separate lawsuit, which was written and announced by the city’s attorney but not filed, alleges that the RHNA violates the city’s right to zone itself. However, after a March 7 city council meeting, the city decided against suing.
Still, Huntington Beach is a microcosm of the current climate, in which cities say they cannot keep up with the state’s housing mandates while the state argues that cities must move quickly to build more housing and address the state’s housing crisis.
“As our state faces an existential housing crisis, we won’t stand idly by as local governments knowingly flout state law meant to protect our communities and bring much needed affordable housing to the people of California,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta in a statement.
Various advocacy groups have sued cities that fail to comply with their housing element numbers, including Belvedere, Bradbury, Burlingame, Claremont, Cupertino, Daly City, Fairfax, Fullerton, Laguna Hills, La Habra Heights, La Mirada, Manhattan Beach, Martinez, Novalto, Palo Alto, Pinole, Pleasant Hill, Richmond, Santa Clara County, South Pasadena, and Vernon.
“There’s no excuse for these cities to be in violation of state law,” said Sonja Trauss, YIMBY Law Executive Director, an organization responsible for some of the lawsuits. “Cities have had years to plan for this. They’ve also received resources and feedback from us, our volunteer watchdogs, and HCD. These cities are trying to push the responsibility onto other communities and avoid having to welcome new neighbors. It’s time for them to be held accountable.”
But cities – including Coronado, which unsuccessfully sued over its own housing element numbers last year, say the burden is too high.
“This work has been challenging,” Friend said, “as Coronado is a built-out city surrounded by water and with most of the land area under the control of the federal and state governments, not the city.”
The next housing cycle is coming
As of March 2023, only 54 percent of California’s jurisdictions have submitted compliant housing elements to the HCD.
Still, the department is moving forward in planning for the future. The RHNA works in cycles, with the HCD first allocating a certain number of housing units a city must zone for. Cities must submit their plans for approval before rezoning. (It’s important to note that the law requires zoning for – not building of – the units.)
California is currently in its sixth cycle, which will end in 2029, and the next cycle will conclude by 2040.
When that cycle ends, a new one begins, with a new number of units that must be accommodated. Coronado’s current allocation represented a 1,800 percent increase in units from its last allocation, which only required the city to zone for 50 additional units.
“Prior to the sixth cycle, we acted as though the existing housing need was met, and we only planned for housing the incoming population,” said Tyrone Buckley, assistant deputy director of fair housing for the HCD, at a March meeting. “But we know that’s not accurate or reflective of the lived experiences of Californians every day. We were able to better account for pent-up demand through factors that were added to the determination phase related to cost burden and overcrowding that resulted in the state more holistically representing the housing needs of existing and projected residents.”
The HCD is currently in its stakeholder engagement period, in which the department hosts meetings, distributes a survey, and accepts comment by email until the end of May. More information is available on the RHNA website.
On July 1, the agency will deliver a progress update to the state legislature, with its final recommendations due on Dec. 31.
“The sixth cycle RHNA more accurately reflected state housing needs (than prior cycles did),” Buckley said, “but there may be more work we need to do to fully capture the pent-up housing demand in California.”
At press time, the HCD had not responded to requests for comment about how the current cycle’s outcomes will impact future planning.