In AIDS Healthcare Foundation v. Bonta (2024) 101 Cal.App.5th 73, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment that Senate Bill 10 (SB 10), which allows local legislative bodies to supersede local housing density caps on a parcel-by-parcel basis, did not unconstitutionally interfere with the initiative power.


Article II, section 11, of the California Constitution authorizes city and county voters to enact local laws through the voter initiative process. Generally, unlike laws enacted by a legislative body, laws enacted by voter initiative may only be altered by another vote of the electorate or in a manner specified in the text of the initiative measure.

SB 10, which the Legislature enacted in response to a “severe shortage of housing at all income levels in this state,” grants counties and cities discretion to supersede local housing density caps—even those adopted via the voter initiative process—on a parcel-by-parcel basis. For qualifying parcels, local legislative bodies may supersede density caps enacted by a local ordinance with a simple majority vote, and those enacted by a voter initiative with a supermajority, two-thirds vote.

Petitioners AIDS Healthcare Foundation and City of Redondo Beach filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking an injunction compelling the State of California to cease enforcement of SB 10 and a declaration that SB 10, on its face, unconstitutionally “eviscerates the fundamental protection against subsequent legislative amendment of initiatives without a vote of the people.”

The trial court concluded that SB 10 did not unconstitutionally impair the initiative power and, accordingly, denied the petition. Petitioners appealed.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

Employing a multi-step analysis, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.

First, the court considered the circumstances in which the Legislature can supersede local zoning and land use laws. The court explained that, generally, state laws generally have supremacy over conflicting local ordinances enacted by non-charter cities and counties. With respect to charter cities, however, any state laws concerning “municipal affairs” supersede conflicting ordinances enacted by charter cities only if the state law (1) pertains to subject matter of regional or statewide concern and (2) is reasonably related to resolving that concern. The court concluded that, given the statewide housing crisis and the reasonable connection between housing shortages and restrictive housing density caps, the circumstances permitted the Legislature to displace local zoning and land use laws by enacting SB 10.

Second, the court determined that SB 10 did in fact displace local laws that set housing density caps. The court explained that local housing density caps expressly prohibited actions authorized by SB 10 (i.e., exceeding the cap), and moreover, that density caps frustrated SB 10’s purpose of promoting higher density housing projects. With respect to local density caps enacted through the voter initiative process, the court explained that statutes may preempt local initiative measures so long as the Legislature clearly intended such an outcome. Accordingly, because SB 10 expressly granted local governments the authority to supersede both legislatively enacted and initiative-based density caps, the court held that SB 10 preempted both types of housing density cap.

Third, the court held that the Legislature’s approach of providing local legislative bodies the power to supersede local housing density caps on a parcel-by-parcel basis—as opposed to outright nullifying these caps statewide—was constitutional. In so holding, the court first pointed out earlier case law in which the California Supreme Court held that the Legislature may grant local legislative bodies discretion regarding local decisions while simultaneously preventing initiatives and local ordinances from impairing that discretion. Additionally, the court reasoned that SB 10’s parcel-by-parcel approach was more protective of the local initiative process than a statewide invalidation of all local housing density caps, especially because it did not prevent voters from passing housing density caps that would require a two-thirds vote by the local legislative body to exceed.

Fourth, the court held that SB 10 did not apply differently to housing density caps already in existence. The court pointed out the SB 10 did not include any exemption for existing density caps, and further reasoned that such an exemption would frustrate the legislative intent behind SB 10’s enactment by substantially limiting local legislative bodies’ discretion to supersede housing density caps.

Accordingly, the court concluded that the Legislature’s enactment of SB 10 did not violate the California Constitution.

– Adam Nir