In Yes In My Back Yard v. City of Culver City (2023) 96 Cal.App.5th 1103, the Second District Court of Appeal held that an ordinance reducing the allowable square footage for new homes in single-family residential zones violated the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 (SB 330).
In response to California’s widespread housing shortages, the Legislature passed SB 330, which generally restricts the authority of affected cities to re-designate or rezone parcels to a “less intensive use” or reduce “the intensity of land use” allowed within an existing land use designation or zoning district.
Shortly after, in July 2020, the City of Culver City adopted an ordinance to reduce the allowable floor area ratio (FAR) (i.e., the ratio of a building’s square footage to the square footage of the lot) for primary residences in single-family residential zones. The City adopted the ordinance in response to residents’ concerns about “mansionization” in their residential neighborhoods, for the express purpose of reducing the overall square footage of new residences.
Petitioner, Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY), filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to repeal the ordinance. YIMBY argued that the ordinance reduced the intensity of use allowed in single-family residential zones, in violation of SB 330. The trial court agreed with YIMBY, granted the petition, and awarded attorneys’ fees to YIMBY. The City appealed.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
After independently reviewing the plain meaning of SB 330, the court concluded that the unambiguous statutory language prohibited the City from reducing the allowed FAR for new residences in single-family residential zones. Specifically, the court explained that SB 330’s prohibition on “reducing the intensity of land use” expressly includes “reductions to height, density, or floor area ratio.” Given the lack of ambiguity in SB 330, the court rejected the City’s argument that the Legislature intended to convey a different meaning. Nevertheless, the court reviewed the legislative history and determined that it was consistent with the court’s interpretation of SB 330.
The court also rejected the City’s argument that the ordinance was exempt from SB 330. By its own terms, SB 330 does not prohibit actions “intended to preserve or facilitate the production of housing for lower income households … or housing types that traditionally serve lower income households,” nor does it prohibit actions intended to increase density, facilitate housing development, or reduce the cost of housing development projects. The court, however, concluded that the City failed to establish that the ordinance would have served any of these purposes.
Finally, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by granting $131,813.58 in attorneys’ fees to YIMBY. The court explained that, by enforcing important housing rights, YIMBY’s lawsuit conferred a significant benefit on the public that justified a fee award under the private attorney general statute. Additionally, the court found that the trial court’s application of a fee multiplier of 1.25 was properly based on several non-punitive factors, including the novel questions presented by the litigation, the future transfer of the expense to the taxpayers (where elected City representatives refused to remedy the violation to avoid the litigation), the relatively low hourly rates requested by YIMBY’s counsel, and the favorable results obtained by YIMBY.