Tag: housing elements

First District Court of Appeal upholds EIR for San Francisco’s Housing Element

On August 22, 2018, the First District issued its decision in San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (___Cal.App.5th___, Case No. A141138). The appellate court upheld an EIR that San Francisco prepared for its 2004 and 2009 Housing Elements, notably rejecting a challenge to the use in the EIR of a future-conditions baseline for the plan’s traffic and water supply impacts.

In an earlier appeal involving San Francisco’s 2004 Housing Element, the First District concluded that the City should have prepared an EIR rather than a negative declaration. By the time the trial court issued an amended writ in April 2009 requiring the preparation of an EIR for the 2004 Housing Element, the City was already in the process of preparing its 2009 Housing Element. Consequently, the City combined the environmental review of the two versions and prepared one EIR for both the 2004 and 2009 Housing Elements. After the City adopted the 2009 Housing Element in June 2011, San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (SFLN) filed a new suit and this appeal followed.

For traffic and water supply impacts, the EIR used a baseline of 2025 conditions based on population projections from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). The court concluded that the City was “within its discretion to adopt a baseline calculation forecasting traffic and water impacts in 2025” rather than “comparing the existing conditions with and without the Housing Element.” Citing POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52 (“POET II”), SFLN argued that the City took an improperly narrow view of the Housing Element and “sidestepped review of the reasonably foreseeable indirect physical changes in the environment.” The court was unpersuaded because the Housing Element consisted of growth-accommodating policies but did not induce or lead to population growth. Discussing the rule described in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2013) 57 Cal.4th 439, the court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that an existing-conditions baseline would be misleading as to traffic and water supply impacts. The court also rejected SFLN’s corollary argument about the baseline for land use and visual resources impacts, noting that the EIR did compare the changes in the Housing Element to the existing environment.

Second, the court tackled SFLN’s challenges to the EIR’s analysis of various impacts. It found that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s analysis, explaining that: (1) the EIR reasonably concluded that the 2009 Housing Element would not result in significant impacts on visual resources or neighborhood character because there would be no changes to allowable land uses or building heights, and residential growth would be directed to areas with existing residential uses; (2) the EIR for the Housing Element was not required to study traffic impacts of specific development projects in the pipeline because those projects were proceeding under their own EIRs or CEQA documents; (3) the EIR for the Housing Element was not required to establish a likely source of water and satisfied CEQA by acknowledging the possibility of a post-2030 water supply shortfall during a multiple-dry-year event and discussing the water rationing plan that would balance supply and demand; and (4) the City did not abuse its discretion in determining that the Housing Element was consistent with ABAG’s Land Use Policy Framework because policies would further the goals of the Framework by placing housing near transit and encouraging infill development.

Third, the court turned to SFLN’s argument that the EIR failed to consider feasible reduced-density alternatives. The EIR analyzed three alternatives, including a No Project Alternative, a 2004 Housing Element Alternative, and an Intensified 2009 Housing Element Alternative. The 2004 Housing Element Alternative was identified as the environmentally superior alternative because it would reduce the sole significant and unavoidable impact (cumulative impact on transit) even though it would not reduce the impact to a less than significant level. The court concluded that this was a reasonable range of alternatives. In particular, the court approved of the City’s explanation in responses to comments that the reduced density alternatives suggested by SFLN would not add any meaningful analysis to the EIR because they would not reduce the project’s potential cumulative transit impacts. The court also found that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the SFLN-proposed alternative dubbed the No Additional Rezoning Alternative was infeasible because increasing the density of two major projects within existing neighborhoods as suggested would require rezoning.

Finally, the court rejected SFLN’s argument that the City should have considered additional mitigation measures to reduce transit impacts. The EIR explained that the only way to eliminate the significant transit impacts would be to increase the number of transit vehicles or reduce transit travel time. Since funding for these measures is uncertain and cannot be guaranteed, the EIR deemed them infeasible. Although SFLN suggested two mitigation measures, one was simply a permutation of the No Project Alternative and the other was infeasible because it involved imposing transit impact fees that the City had already decided would be infeasible because they cannot be guaranteed.

Elizabeth Sarine

Fourth District Rejects Challenge to the City of Huntington Beach’s Housing Element, Applying Charter City Exemption

On October 31, 2017 in Kennedy Commission v. City of Huntington Beach  (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 841, the Fourth Appellate District reversed the lower court,  finding for defendants on the first cause of action under state housing element, zoning, and planning laws. The court of appeal allowed plaintiffs leave to refile their third to sixth causes of actions, which had been dismissed without prejudice in the court below. A separate ruling on plaintiffs’ fee award from the court below is pending.

Background

The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) determines each region’s Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA), including each region’s share of lower income housing. HCD then determines if the housing element of a general plan is compliant and reflects the agency’s share of the RHNA. HCD approved Huntington Beach’s general plan housing element in 2013. At the time, the majority of lower income housing was zoned for the Beach Edinger Corridor Specific Plan area (BECSP). Residents complained about the rapid pace of development in this area. In response, in 2015, the city amended the BECSP, cutting the amount of housing in this area by half. This resulted in a 350-unit shortfall of lower income housing for Huntington Beach. The city then sought to amend the housing element of the general plan to provide for lower-income housing in other areas of the city.

Plaintiffs, a fair housing advocacy organization and two lower-income Huntington Beach renters, filed a writ of mandate with six causes of action. The first cause of action was under state housing element law, for adopting a specific plan that was inconsistent with an approved general plan. The second cause of action was for failure to implement the general plan. The third and fourth causes of action were based on Article XI, section 7 of the California Constitution, alleging that the amended BECSP was preempted by state law. The fifth and sixth causes of action were allegations of housing discrimination, for adverse impacts to racial and ethnic minorities.

In an expedited trial, the trial court found that the amended BECSP violated state housing law because it no longer complied with the general plan (plaintiffs’ first cause of action). The trial court found that under Government Code section 65454, a municipality may not amend a specific plan unless the amendment is consistent with the general plan. The city, in violation of this provision, amended the specific plan without first amending the housing element to find other areas where lower income housing could be built. The BECSP amendment was void when passed and could not be enforced. The third through sixth causes of action were dismissed without prejudice. The second cause of action was not pursued on appeal.

Appellate Court Ruling

For the first time on appeal, the city raised the defense that as a charter city, Huntington Beach was exempt from requirements under Government Code sections 65860 and 65454, requiring that zoning ordinances and specific plans be consistent with the general plan. Charter cities with less than two million residents are exempt from these requirements, per Government Code 65803 (zoning) and 65700 (local planning). An exception to this exemption is when the charter city expressly states, in either its charter or by ordinance, that it intends to adopt the consistency requirement, which Huntington Beach alleged that it had not done. Therefore, the defendants argued, while they were required to provide for their share of lower income housing as determined by the RHNA, the city was permitted to amend the general plan to be compliant. To support this argument, the city moved for the appellate court to take judicial notice of the city’s charter and population, providing the factual basis for the city’s charter city exemption.

First, as a threshold matter, the court of appeal exercised its discretion to take judicial notice of documents that were not before the trial court, that are of substantial consequence in the determination of the action. The court chose to exercise its discretion here, because the trial court had not restricted the issues in its expedited hearing. Although this was not a justification for defendants’ failure to raise the issue, this decision afforded the defendants some latitude in this regard.

As to the merits, the court found that Huntington Beach met the requirements for the charter city exemption, and that the exception to this exemption was inapplicable. First, the court found that the consistency requirement was not adopted by the city in its charter. The court then examined Huntington Beach’s zoning ordinance concerning specific plans and determined that the city did not intend to adopt a consistency requirement there, either. In making this determination, the court heavily relied on its decision in Garat v. City of Riverside (1991) 2 Cal.App.4th 259. In Garat, Riverside, also a charter city, enacted two voter initiatives which changed the zoning to favor agricultural uses in specified areas, creating an inconsistency with the general plan.

In Garat, the court rejected the argument that the adoption of any specific plans, even if they were intended to be consistent with the general plan, creates either a presumption that all specific plans in the general plan area must also be consistent, or that a city has generally adopted the consistency requirement in its land use planning.

More importantly, Garat established that Government Code section 67000 exempts charter cities from local planning requirements, in virtually the same way that section 65803 exempts charter cities from the provisions requiring consistency with to specific plans, and these exemptions are strictly construed.

Turning to Huntington Beach’s zoning ordinance, the city did not explicitly state that any specific plan that was not consistent with the general plan was void. The ordinance did use language concerning consistency, but fell short of expressly adopting the language of Government Code section 65454. To adopt the consistency requirement, a zoning ordinance must state that “[n]o specific plan may be adopted or amended” unless it is consistent with the general plan, or else it is void. Absent this, plaintiffs’ attempt to imbue a consistency requirement in the zoning ordinance must fail, as it did in Garat.

The court also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that even if the charter city exemption applied, the amended BECSP should be considered void, as violating state law. Even if the court were to accept that the BECSP violated state law, the remedy would not be to render the BECSP void. Rather, the remedy would be to grant the city time to amend its housing element. The city is already implementing this remedy. The amendment process can proceed, while leaving the amended BECSP in force.

 The court noted while one may question the wisdom of creating the charter city exemption for certain aspects of land use planning, this was clearly the legislative intent.

The ruling is notable for several reasons. It set a high bar for plaintiffs in the Fourth District who are seeking to establish that a charter city has adopted specific plan consistency requirements, absent express adoption of the language of Government Code section 65454. Additionally, the city’s victory may be pyrrhic. As the city conceded, and the court concurred, the general plan’s housing element will ultimately require amendment to provide the city’s designated share of the RHNA. While the city achieved its goal of slowing down the pace of development, plaintiffs may yet refile and potentially prevail on their claims of housing discrimination, incurring liability for the city. Finally, although the court did decide to exercise its discretion and take judicial notice of the city’s charter, if it had not, the court would have had no basis for finding merit in the city’s defense under the charter city exemption. By not raising this defense in trial, the city came close to forfeiting this ultimately successful defense. Therefore, municipalities would do well to note if they are a charter city, and be prepared to argue that defense where applicable in the first instance.

Legislative Analyst’s Office Concludes State Government Has Limited Ability to Increase Housing Supply; the Solution Lies with Local Governments

On March 8, 2017, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released its report Do Communities Adequately Plan for Housing?, which considers whether the housing elements of city and county general plans achieve their objective of meeting housing needs. The report is not optimistic.  While it offers a few suggestions that the Legislature could consider to encourage cities and counties to increase their housing supplies, the report concludes that real change will only come with a “major shift in how communities and their residents think about and value new housing.” Without a paradigm shift in favor of more residential development, “no state intervention is likely to make significant progress on addressing the state’s housing needs.”

As reported in LAO’s earlier report, California’s High Housing Costs: Causes and Consequences (March, 2015), home prices and rents are higher in California than nearly anywhere else in the U.S. These high costs are driven by a lack of housing supply to meet the state’s demand. To combat this, Governor Brown proposed creating new state rules to streamline housing development approvals. In Considering Changes to Streamline Local Housing Approvals (May, 2016), the LAO considered this streamlining proposal, but cautioned that streamlining provisions would have little effect if local planning and zoning rules did not provide adequate opportunities for projects to take advantage of the streamlining. In the new report, the LAO builds upon these previous studies to consider how the state government could influence local planning and zoning rules to encourage cities and counties to approve more housing development projects.

The report explains that the primary existing means for the state to combat inadequate local planning and zoning laws is the state’s Housing Element Law. This law requires city and county general plans to include a housing element, which outlines a long-term plan to meet the community’s existing and projected housing demands. The housing element must also demonstrate how the city or county plans to accommodate its “fair share” of the regional housing needs allocated to that community as part of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process. Each housing element must provide an inventory of sites designated for new housing sufficient to meet the community’s fair share of regional housing needs.

The new LAO report looks at existing deficiencies in local housing elements. It notes that forecasting housing needs and identifying ideal sites for future housing, is difficult, and rarely accurate. Community resistance to new housing complicates this already difficult task. Residents frequently push back against the projections of future housing needs and question whether their community should bear the responsibility of accommodating new growth. Partly because of this push-back, many cities and counties seem to place a low priority on updating their planning and zoning laws to accommodate future housing needs. Indeed, about one-fifth of cities and counties have gone more than 20 years without a comprehensive update to their land use and circulation elements. With limited staff and budget, the California Department of Housing and Community Development can do little to ensure that cities and counties are fully vetting the sites available to them for future housing.

The report further explains that evidence shows that the housing element process is not meeting its goals. For one, recent RHNA projections are not fully capturing demand for housing in many communities. For instance, in the San Francisco Bay area, cities and counties permitted roughly the amount of housing projected to be needed to meet their fair share of regional housing needs, but the evidence shows there is still significant unmet demand for housing. Typical monthly rents exceed $2,000, more than twice the national average, demonstrating that there is a housing shortage in the Bay Area.

Further, there are disincentives to homebuilding that make it difficult to anticipate places where developers will ultimately propose housing. For instance, housing element inventories frequently overlook sites that need a zone change to accommodate new housing. The Housing Element Law is supposed to encourage local agencies to rezone properties that could accommodate residential development, but many local agencies fail to do so.

The report offers a few options for the Legislature to consider to make the Housing Element Law more effective. First, the process of developing RHNA projections could be improved to better account for unmet housing demands and give cities and counties a more realistic view of their housing needs. For instance, communities with high rents could be projected to have a higher RHNA goal, since higher rents typically mean there is a housing shortage. The state could also increase local fiscal incentives to build housing, but doing this could be difficult to implement, particularly if it would require tax increases.

The report ends by noting that absent dramatic changes to preempt local land use decisionmaking—which would likely be met with fervent resistance—there is not much the state can do to ensure cities and counties approve a sufficient amount of new housing development projects to meet all income needs. As concluded in the report:

Convincing Californians that a large increase in home building—one that would change the character of communities—could substantially better the lives of future residents and future generations necessitates difficult conversations led by elected officials and other community leaders interested in those goals. Unless Californians are convinced of the benefits of more home building—targeted at meeting demand at every income level—the ability of the state to alter local planning decisions is limited.