Orange County’s most progressive city has led homebuilding in the region by miles. 

Santa Ana city council members also have led the fight for housing stability in recent years, from development fees for affordable housing projects to eviction protections and rent control. 

It’s earned Santa Ana top marks with the state as it mandates housing production quotas up and down California. 

Yet now local leaders are pushing back against Sacramento — in some ways echoing one of Orange County’s most Republican city council majorities over in Huntington Beach, a group that’s vocally opposed the state’s housing goals in enacting contrary policies and even going to court. 

[Read here: California’s Battle With Huntington Beach Over Housing Goals Heads To Court]

Santa Ana council members were near-unanimous in their decision this week to exempt certain parcels of city land from two state laws that override local zoning authority and streamline mixed-income and affordable housing projects in commercial and office areas.

The laws are Assembly Bill 2011 and Senate Bill 6. Both take effect on July 1 and expire in 2033, and are meant to speed up regional and statewide housing supply, ideally assuaging soaring prices in the process. 

But also written in the laws is a process for local jurisdictions to apply for exemptions, if they can identify alternative sites for the lands the two laws open up for development, and without losing any of the residential capacity that the laws aim to achieve in local jurisdictions.

In response, Santa Ana city officials pursued those exemptions this year, seeking to preserve the vision of their recently-updated General Plan and pinpointing alternate sites with even more residential capacity than called for by the two state bills, according to Planning and Building Director Minh Thai. 

“There is ample capacity to accommodate residential density above the baseline established by the bills,” Thai said.

State officials say that’s not the case.

Statutes must be read to give their “intended effect,” wrote a state housing official in a June 19 letter to City Council members.

“And the most reasonable interpretation of AB 2011, read in its entire context, does not support the City’ s view that it can rely on its existing density thresholds — even if recently increased — to offset the loss of AB 2011 exemptions,” wrote HCD Assistant Deputy Director David Zisser.

Last month, council members postponed the city’s exemption proposal to give the state more time to respond to it.

Then – after five meetings with the state Housing and Community Development agency between May 23 and June 15 – city staff pared it back, reducing the amount of would-be exempted parcels after state input.

But despite a reworked proposal, state officials still weren’t on board, and urged council members last week against approving the ordinance.

In his June 19 letter to the city, Zisser warned against what he called “blanket exemptions” by resolution, calling the city’s written findings on why it qualifies for exemptions “inadequate” and questioning the city’s assertion that the alternate sites have high enough capacity for residents.

“HCD urges the City to refrain from adopting the proposed resolutions until it can correct the issues identified in this letter and demonstrate through adequate written findings that it fully complies with the exemption requirements in AB 2011 and SB 6,” Zisser wrote. 

“The adoption of the proposed resolutions as-is would be inconsistent with AB 2011.”

The response from the dais:

Majority support for the ordinance.

A rare instance in which an often divided city council found itself in near-alignment.

“This is really a great balance for even having affordable housing being built in the city and also protecting the way we do work in Santa Ana,” said Councilmember Ben Vazquez, before voting in support of the ordinance.

Council members argued the state was punishing “good actors” while rewarding the bad ones – punishing a city that surpassed its state housing production quota by 2,400% in the last housing cycle, and not a city, for instance, that openly resists the state.

In the current state-mandated housing production cycle, Thai said that “52% of Santa Ana’s allocation has been met just 18 months into the eight-year planning period.”

“You keep coming after good actors. You know what you’re going to do, HCD? You’re going to end up dissuading good actors from acting good. Not Santa Ana, Santa Ana will be fine, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra before the vote.

He asked why other cities “would go and be as ambitious as Santa Ana” when “you’re trying to take an interpretation on density that actually punishes us — actually punishes us. That’s ridiculous.” 

“I think what HCD is doing is actually going to be detrimental to what their stated purpose and what their stated goals are,” Bacerra said.

HCD spokesperson Alicia Murillo didn’t respond to requests for comment about Santa Ana’s actions.

Some members of the public last week publicly warned council members against supporting the ordinance.

“The type of city I want to live in is one where people can work and live in the same neighborhood,” where they don’t have to travel long distances “to go home and then come to work,” said resident Juliana Musheyev.

Musheyev called the housing bills “yet another step in the right direction for providing opportunities for affordable housing.”

Yet Mayor Valerie Amezcua told the state on Tuesday night from the dais, “go pick a fight somewhere else.”

“We’ve done our fair share and then some,” Amezcua added. “The expectation is you do more and more and more — when is enough for Santa Ana?”

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