California’s attempts at forcing its wealthy coastal cities to build more affordable housing spawned two lawsuits on Thursday, showcasing tensions around solving a crisis that has contributed to a surge in the homeless population in the nation’s most populous state.
Attorney General Rob Bonta sued Huntington Beach on Thursday morning, accusing the seaside city known for its surf culture and iconic pier of ignoring state laws requiring it to approve more affordable housing and to build more than 13,000 new homes over the next eight years.
State housing officials say California needs an additional 2.5 million homes by 2030 in order to keep up with demand. But the state currently builds about 125,000 houses each year, which leaves California well short of that goal. California has about 170,000 homeless people on any given night, accounting for nearly one-third of the nation’s unsheltered population, according to federal data.
Bonta’s lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, asks a judge to order the city to comply with the law and to impose a fine.
“This is the colossal challenge that California is confronting,” Bonta said. “The message we’re sending to the city of Huntington Beach is simple: Act in good faith, follow the law and do your part to increase the housing supply. If you don’t, our office will hold you accountable.”
Hours later, defiant city officials announced their own lawsuit, asking a federal judge to block the state from forcing them to build a wave of new homes they said would transform the suburban community into an urban one.
“I am committed to defend the city and its wonderful property owners who enjoy this quiet suburban beach town,” Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland said.
Huntington Beach, dubbed “Surf City USA,” has a largely suburban feel with residential neighborhoods of single-family homes flanked by busy main roads linked with strip malls and office buildings.
Last year, four new councilmembers won election with a politically conservative bent. Since taking office, the four-member council majority has taken on state housing mandates and limited the flying of flags on city property, including removing the LGBT rainbow flag that has flown in the city the past two years.
The dispute with the state centers on the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, a process that requires cities to formulate a plan every eight years on how they will meet housing demands — demand that is set by the state.
California has told Huntington Beach it must built 13,368 new homes over the next eight years. The city is supposed to come up with a plan on how they will do that, and that plan that must be approved by the state.
The state punishes cities that don’t have state-approved housing plans by letting developers come in and build affordable apartment buildings without asking for local permission — a penalty known as the “builder’s remedy.” The Huntington Beach City Council is considering an ordinance at its next meeting that would exempt the city from this penalty, an ordinance state officials say is illegal.
A state law, passed in 2019, says a state judge can impose fines starting at $10,000 per month for cities that refuse to comply. The law also says the court can appoint someone “with all the powers necessary” to force the city into compliance.
This is the second time California officials have sued Huntington Beach for not following state housing laws. The city settled the first lawsuit back in 2020.
California’s housing and homelessness issues have worsened each year despite Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature spending billions of dollars in taxpayer money on the problem. Nearly all of that money has gone to local governments, which have their own housing and homelessness policies.
State leaders have repeatedly tried to shape those local policies through state laws and regulations.
Newsom, who won reelection in November and is seen as a potential presidential candidate one day, has aggressively challenged local governments to comply with state standards. Last year, he delayed $1 billion in homelessness funding for local governments because he said their plans to spend the money weren’t good enough.
Newsom later released the money after a closed-door meeting with local officials.
“We need to do more, to do better as a state to address the original sin that is affordability,” Newsom said. “At the end of the day, it’s the number one issue that connects all the other bills and challenges and sins of the state together — the cost of living.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with Huntington Beach’s announcement of its own lawsuit.