COURT HOLDS DENSITY BONUS LAW PROHIBITS CITIES AND COUNTIES FROM REQUIRING PROOF THAT PROJECTS WILL BE “ECONOMICALLY” INFEASIBLE WITHOUT REQUESTED CONCESSIONS AND WAIVERS

The density bonus law (Gov. Code, § 65915) requires cities and counties to allow increased building density, and development incentives and waivers of permit requirements, in exchange for the applicant’s agreement to dedicate a specified number of dwelling units to low or very-low income households. In Schreiber et al. v. City of Los Angeles (Sept. 28, 2021, B303642) __Cal.5th__, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the City of Los Angeles’ municipal code is preempted by the state density bonus law to the extent that the city’s code requires an applicant to prove that the concessions it requests under the density bonus law are needed to make the affordable-housing component of the project financially feasible.

The case involves a mixed-use development in the City of Los Angeles, with retail uses on the ground floor and residential units above. Absent concessions and waivers, the city’s zoning code would limit the site’s development to three stories, a height of 45 feet, and a maximum of 40 units. Under the density bonus law, however, the applicant proposed to develop a seven-story building, with 54 units, including five very-low income units and five moderate income units.

Prior to the city planning commission’s first hearing on the project, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill No. 2501 (AB 2501), which amended the density bonus law to prohibit local governments from conditioning their review or approval of an application under the density bonus law “on the preparation of an additional report or study that is not otherwise required by law.” (Gov. Code, § 65915, subd. (a)(2).) AB 2501 clarified, however, that local agencies are not prohibited from “requiring an applicant to provide reasonable documentation to establish eligibility for a requested density bonus, incentives, or concessions.” (Ibid.) It also clarified that the term “study” does not include “reasonable documentation to establish eligibility for the concession or incentive or to demonstrate that the incentive or concession meets the definitions” set forth in the density bonus law. (Gov. Code, § 65915, subd. (k).)

Based on AB 2501, the city’s planning department advised that financial pro formas and third-party reviews can no longer be required. Although the applicant had provided financial information regarding the project, in response to city staff’s interpretation of AB 2501, the applicant stated that he would not be providing a pro forma for the project.

Following a hearing, the city planning commission approved the project, including the requested density bonus. The planning commission also approved two “off menu” incentives (increased floor area and maximum height) and two waivers (transitional height and rear yard set back requirements).

The plaintiffs, residents of a nearby single-family home, filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the city misinterpreted the density bonus law. In particular, the plaintiffs argued that the city erred in granting the off-menu incentives because the applicant had not submitted financial information showing that the incentives were needed to make the project economically feasible—information that, the plaintiffs observed, was required under the city’s municipal code. The trial court denied the petition and the court of appeal affirmed.

The appellate court explained that under AB 2501’s amendments to the density bonus law, a local government cannot condition its approval of incentives on the preparation of a report that is not otherwise required by law. The city’s municipal code, however, provided that a request for an off-menu incentive must include a pro forma or other documentation showing that the incentive is needed to make the affordable-housing component of the project economically feasible. The court held that the city may not require information that an incentive is necessary to make the project economically feasible because that information is not needed to show that the project is eligible for the incentive. Rather, the “economically feasible” language in the city’s municipal code was based on a prior version of the statute, which required applicants to show that an incentive was necessary to render the affordable units economically feasible. That requirement, however, had been removed from the statute in 2008. Because the city code conflicted with state density bonus law, the court held that the city code is preempted to the extent that it requires an applicant to demonstrate that a requested incentive is needed to make the project economically feasible.

The case provides helpful guidance regarding the documentation that local agencies may require in processing a request for incentives and waivers under the density bonus law. The case clarifies that an agency may not require an applicant to prove that the requested incentives and waivers are necessary to make the affordable-housing component of a project economically feasible. The court’s reasoning in the case is consistent with the requirement that the density bonus law be “interpreted liberally in favor of producing the maximum number of total housing units.” (Gov. Code, § 65915, subd. (r).)