‘Sue the suburbs’ group strikes again, attacking another Bay Area city over housing

In a low-key San Francisco office decorated with “legalize
housing” T-shirts and a fluffy, avocado-shaped throw pillow, a
tiny group of advocates is trying to sue their way out of the Bay
Area housing crisis.

The four-person California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education
Fund, or CaRLA, has one reason for being — to sue cities that
reject housing projects without a valid reason. The litigious
nonprofit with YIMBY roots struck again last month, suing Los Altos
after the city rejected a developer’s bid to streamline a project
of 15 apartments plus ground-floor office space.

It’s a bold strategy and one advocates say fills the
enforcement hole in California housing policy. But it’s also
helping push housing decisions out of city council chambers and
into the courtroom — removing those key issues from local control
and further stoking the flames of bitter contention that often
surround Bay Area housing debates.

As the Bay Area struggles with a housing shortage that’s
driving up home prices and rents, and some building proposals that
could alleviate the crunch get bogged down or denied amid pushback
from neighbors, CaRLA’s founder, Sonja Trauss, sees her mission
as simple:

She’s here to enforce the law.

“Something, by hook or by crook, has to make these cities
actually build housing,” said Trauss, a 37-year-old law school
dropout turned housing advocate, who has a lawyer on staff and also
works with an outside law firm to file her cases. Her group’s
unofficial motto is “sue the suburbs.”

But critics argue suing the suburbs is not the best way out of
the housing crisis. Development decisions should be made locally
and with community input, not in courtrooms under pressure from
outside groups such as CaRLA, said Susan Kirsch, founder of
slow-growth group Livable California.

“These people (city councils) are so dedicated and are working
so hard to find the solutions, to get the right affordable housing
mix and the right jobs-housing balance,” she said. “And then to
have the threat of a lawsuit, it’s just unfortunate, I
think.”

In late July, Trauss’ group sued Los Altos over the city’s
ruling that a residential and office project proposed on North Main
Street did not qualify for streamlined approval under the state’s
new SB 35 law. That law requires cities to expedite approval of
certain residential and mixed-use projects. The city said the
project didn’t have enough residential space to qualify under the
law, among other issues, but the lawsuit takes issue with how that
calculation was reached.

Los Altos Mayor Lynette Lee Eng said the city remains confident
in its decision to reject the application.

“This project would result in a five-story building surrounded
by two-story buildings, which goes against our General Plan and is
completely out of character with our downtown aesthetic,” Lee Eng
wrote in an emailed statement.

Trauss’ cases are based on the argument that rejecting
zoning-compliant projects not only exacerbates the housing crisis
— it’s illegal. Her weapon of choice is the state’s Housing
Accountability Act, which says officials cannot deny or reduce the
density of a housing project that complies with the city’s
general plan and zoning rules, unless the project poses specific
public health and safety concerns. Since 2016, CaRLA has sued nine
cities over allegedly improper project denials or illegal housing
ordinances, including San Mateo, Berkeley, Lafayette and San
Francisco. Of those, four have resulted in settlements that forced
officials to approve the housing.

Dublin, for example, was forced to approve a 220-unit apartment
building next to the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station last year as
part of a settlement with CaRLA. Four other cases are ongoing, and
one case settled without the project getting approved. CaRLA also
has sent dozens of letters to cities — including Cupertino over
the contentious Vallco Mall site — warning officials against
taking action that would violate state law.

“I think the bigger impact they’re having is that cities are
now on notice that they can’t be scofflaw cities and not face any
consequences,” said Matt Regan, senior vice president of public
policy for the Bay Area Council.

Trauss says she learned her techniques from the other side. She
watched residents opposed to new housing derail projects with
lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act, or
CEQA. The Housing Accountability Act is her way of fighting back,
Trauss said

To wage that fight, CaRLA raised almost $400,000 last year from
donors and grants, Trauss said. She shares an office with the more
well-known housing advocacy group YIMBY Action, an organization she
helped found and still works closely with.

The state already has methods in place to make sure cities build
enough housing, but advocates have long complained they lack teeth.
To begin with, every city has a certain amount of state-mandated
housing it’s required to plan for — known as its Regional
Housing Need Allocation, or “RHNA” number. Cities must create
general plans and zoning rules that allow for that amount of
housing to be built, but until recently, there was little
punishment if jurisdictions fell out of compliance. Gov. Gavin
Newsom has started to change that, suing the city of Huntington
Beach for failing to set aside enough land for housing. In June, he
laid out a plan to fine other noncompliant cities up to $600,000 a
month.

But none of those measures force cities to approve individual
housing developments. That’s where the Housing Accountability Act
comes in. Enacted in 1982 and strengthened since, it requires
cities to abide by their own general plans and zoning rules. Until
CaRLA came along, it was rarely used.

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Now more rejected projects are ending up in court. Dublin Mayor
David Haubert, whose city was sued by CaRLA last year, doesn’t
think that’s good. Litigation is costly and risky and it makes
the city look bad, he said.

“While I respect their right to sue cities,” Haubert said,
“as mayor, I would prefer that they would sit down with me and
talk in person. I’m not sure why they didn’t seek to do
that.”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
‘Sue the suburbs’ group strikes again, attacking another Bay Area city over housing