California housing officials are warning Huntington Beach city leaders to stand down after city council members said they’re looking at limiting the state’s power to control local housing development. 

Sacramento officials also threatened to take Surf City to court if the council adopts any local ordinances violating state housing laws aimed at increasing the number of homes.

At a Dec. 20 meeting, council members said they are looking to challenge state mandates requiring the construction of over 13,000 housing units in the city and implement a law that would ban the state from approving developments that were shot down by city leaders, a practice known as builders’ remedy.  

“This is fulfilling the last pillar of our contract with the Huntington Beach voters, and that is to unleash (city attorney) Michael Gates to push back against the state mandates,” said Councilman Casey McKeon. “These 13,368 mandated units is outrageous, it’s not realistic.” 

“We have to fight this with every fiber of our being.” 

Council members caught the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom shortly after the meeting, who lambasted city officials for the move.  

“When Californians ask why there isn’t enough housing, why the cost of renting continues to increase or why there are so many people experiencing homelessness, I tell them to look at Huntington Beach – another city where elected officials are resorting to cheap political stunts to avoid their responsibility to build desperately needed housing,” Newsom said in a Dec. 22 statement.  

“California’s housing crisis is real, and we need leaders who are serious about solving problems in their communities. It is time for the games to stop,” he continued.  

McKeon, along with newly elected Council Members Gracey Van Der Mark, Pat Burns and Mayor Tony Strickland, all campaigned on suing the state over the mandated housing goals – a legal battle the previous city council refused to fight.

[Read: Republicans on Track to Retake Huntington Beach City Council]

The precise details on what any potential legal fight looks like are unclear, with city attorney Michael Gates promising to brief the counsel behind closed doors in the near future. 

“Based on interpretation, builder’s remedy is already illegal under our ordinance,” Gates said. “It’s just a separate, discrete ordinance that makes it more express and clear the city will not tolerate builders’ remedy.” 

“How so?” asked Councilman Dan Kalmick.

“I can’t get into all the zoning right now,” Gates replied. 

“How do you know it’s illegal if you can’t cite the code?” Kalmick challenged again. 

“I’ve looked at it,” Gates said. “Trust me.” 

State Officials Step In 

Not only did Surf City council members catch the Governor’s attention, but they also drew the interest of the Golden State’s Housing and Community Development Department (HCD).

“HCD will continue to monitor the City’s actions regarding the proposed ordinance, and if the City adopts an ordinance that violates state housing law, HCD will respond in order to remedy those violations,” wrote Melinda Coy, the department’s Proactive Housing Accountability Chief in a Monday letter.

To read the letter, click here.

Coy warned in the letter that the city’s challenge would likely be unsuccessful, pointing to other cases where the state beat city challenges.

“Similar challenges brought by other jurisdictions have failed.”

State officials, adamant on increasing its housing stock amid a shortage, increased pressure on cities to zone for more homes as well as upped enforcement and formed the housing accountability unit to make sure cities stick to their housing plans.

Many local officials in Orange County have pushed back against the pressure and have called for greater local control on housing and zoning issues.

[Read: What Will OC’s Landscape Look Like in 10 Years? Cities Struggle With Housing Plans]

In a joint statement following the housing department’s letter, Councilmembers Rhonda Bolton, Natalie Moser and Dan Kalmick, who all opposed the challenge to state laws, pointed out how the new legal challenges could lose taxpayer dollars on a lost cause. 

“This is not a matter of weak stomachs; it’s a matter of brains and pocketbooks,” Bolton said. “We don’t believe endless, futile litigation – which is not “free” even if handled by the City Attorney’s Office – is the most prudent use of our taxpayers’ dollars.”  

McKeon did not respond to requests for comment on the state’s letter. 

A History of Housing Fights

This is not the first time Huntington Beach officials and State Housing Officials have bumped heads over housing.

A couple years ago, the state sued Huntington Beach over what they described as a failure to allow enough affordable homes to be built. The city agreed to settle the lawsuit in 2020.

In April 2021, former City Councilman Erik Peterson called on his colleagues to publicly discuss suing the state over the more than 13,000 housing units they’ve been mandated to zone for in Huntington Beach.

But the previous council majority which included Kalmick and Moser as well as Republicans Mike Posey and Barbara Delgleize chose not to sue the state despite support from residents at the time.

“We sued already. We’ve sued a lot and we’ve lost.” Delgleize said at a meeting in 2021. “And guess what else? It costs a lot of money.” 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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