In the midst of their housing battle with Sacramento, a majority of Huntington Beach City Council members refused to move forward with a state-required housing plan – a decision that could see hefty fines and a lawsuit.
On Tuesday, the City Council narrowly shot down another effort to adopt that plan by a 4-3 vote.
Mayor Tony Strickland, Councilmembers Gracey Van Der Mark, Pat Burns and Casey McKeon – Huntington Beach’s new Republican majority – voted against adopting the plan.
Strickland and the majority were elected to the city council in the November election last year partly on the promise of “unleashing” City Attorney Michael Gates and challenging the state’s mandated housing goals that require Huntington Beach leaders to zone for 13,368 homes by the end of the decade.
The city moved forward with that lawsuit last month.
“If we lose this fight, the city that the people love here in Huntington Beach – the suburban community that they love – is gone,” Strickland said Tuesday, adding that development decisions should be made by the council, not Sacramento bureaucrats.
“I certainly don’t want Governor (Gavin) Newsom or Attorney General (Rob) Bonta to tell us that we have to build in a city that’s 95% built out.”
But other council members warned against the move.
“We could pass the housing element and maintain local control during this time the lawsuit is being adjudicated,” Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton said.
Newsom’s office criticized the move Tuesday night.
“Once again, members of the Huntington Beach City Council refuse to do the right thing and have shirked their responsibility to build their fair share of housing. The Administration will continue to work to ensure that Huntington Beach is held accountable and is in compliance with state law,” said a spokesman for Newsom, Daniel Lopez, in an email.
Not having a certified housing plan could end up costing Huntington Beach millions of tax dollars and strip its ability to control local zoning – even sending the city into a court receivership in which decisions would be made for them.
[Read: What Happens To Cities That Defy California’s Housing Mandates?]
Councilmembers Bolton, Dan Kalmick and Natalie Moser all said they worried about the repercussions.
“Without a state housing update that’s been certified by HCD I think our footings off and I think the state rolls in here pretty strong and we are in a very bad situation,” Kalmick said, adding if they lose their lawsuit against the state they’ll be in a worse situation.
Those are not the only consequences of not having a plan certified by the state.
It could also open the city to Builder’s Remedy – an obscure law that could allow developers to sidestep city approval for housing development projects where 20% of the homes are affordable.
Bolton said passing the housing plan might keep the city from facing such consequences as the lawsuit plays out.
“The direction that we’re going now with no housing element is – in the meantime, we have Builder’s Remedy, and if someone comes in and they want to build a six story building, there’s nothing we could do about it,” Bolton said.
In February, the city receieved two applications that cite the state code that include’s builder’s remedy.
However, Strickland and community development director Ursula Reynosa say that the two projects in question will not benefit from the builder’s remedy law, and that the applications cited that code to benefit from other provisions of the Housing Accountability Act.
Surf City Takes a Stand Against Housing Goals
Officials last debated their housing plan on March 21 but a majority of the city council refused to adopt their state required housing plan intended to map out where the over 13,000 homes would go and instead unanimously decided to continue the conversation.
That same day, a federal judge denied the city’s request for an injunction to stop the state government from enforcing any penalties or fines on the city until the issue was settled in court.
Strickland and Van Der Mark cited environmental concerns in March as one of the reasons for not approving the housing and took issue with a required statement that the need for homes outweighs certain environmental impacts.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Van Der Mark reiterated her concerns and criticized the methodology used to spread out zoning for homes in cities across California.
She pointed to a state auditors’ report last year that called out the formula used to divide up the housing goals, as reported by Voice of OC.
“We’ve been asked to do our fair share, we have no problem doing our fair share, but with fair numbers and these numbers are not fair,” Van Der Mark said.
Burns criticized the move as a “political tool to attack the city’s power to govern” themselves.
“We received a letter from the governor and (Attorney General) Bonta threatening us of repercussions if we don’t comply with these mandates from the state. I’ve read that letter and I’m in disbelief that this is the United States,” he said.
“It’s absolutely disgusting and revolting.”
Some residents at the meeting also spoke out against the state’s pressure to zone for more homes that they said would bring high density housing to Huntington Beach and change the quality of life in their coastal city.
They called on their elected officials to not move forward with the housing plan.
Others called for the council to pass the housing plan to curb school closures and declining enrollment, overcrowding, homelessness and help balance out home prices by increasing housing stock.
Moser said school closures in Huntington Beach are a symptom of a lack of affordable homes for young families.
“In my school district, there’s a potential four schools that are going to close. That’s not because they want to close them. It’s because of a lack of children coming in because of a lack of affordability,” she said.
Cities Struggle With Housing Plans
Surf City isn’t the only city without a plan certified by officials in Sacramento.
About half of Orange County cities do not have a housing plan certified by the state, according to a state database.
[Read: Half of Orange County Lacks State Approved Housing Plans as HB Reignites Debate on Mandates]
As part of his push back against the housing mandates, Huntington Beach Mayor Strickland and others have called out the burden to zone for a large amount of housing compared to the entirety of Marin – Newsom’s home county in the San Francisco bay area.
[Read: After Surf City Housing Lawsuit, Which California Counties Get to Be Suburban With Softer Mandates?]
Huntington Beach City Council members aren’t the only ones frustrated by the number of homes they have to zone for.
City officials across the county have pushed back on these mandated housing goals, openly calling them unrealistic, unfair and questioning where the homes will go in what they say is an already built out county.
However, they are reluctantly adopting housing plans to avoid penalties.
But for people like HB Councilman McKeon and the rest of Surf City’s council majority – complying is not an option.
“If we lose this fight, we will pick another angle because I will never stop fighting against state overreach in order to protect the city I love,” he said.
“I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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