California housing crisis drifts toward political war

A vacant parking lot overlooked by the Urban Town House Project construction site in Long Beach, on July 22, 2021. The affordable housing project will be for low-income families. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters. | 

By Dan Walters |

The long-simmering conflict between state officials and local governments over housing construction — or the lack thereof — escalated this month and may be headed for a showdown at the polls next year.

Citing a stubborn shortage of housing that drives up housing prices and rents, the state has been pressing local governments, particularly cities, to encourage construction through zoning and pro-development policies. To make their point, legislators and governors have enacted new laws aimed at overcoming local not-in-my-backyard resistance to housing projects. 

Attorney General Rob Bonta, armed with new authority, has stepped up the pressure by creating a new 12-member Department of Justice task force that will, he said, more strictly enforcing pro-housing laws. 

Bonta hinted of more lawsuits against cities that fail to meet state-imposed quotas for zoning land for housing, a strategy that has been used occasionally in the past. 

“That’s certainly an area of interest and an area where we can be more involved,” Bonta said during a virtual news conference. “We will be looking at cities to see if they are meeting their obligations under the law.” 

Bonta’s announcement drew sharp criticism from the League of California Cities. 

“The comments made during the attorney general’s press conference today, demonizing all cities for things they do not control, will not put roofs over the heads of Californians,” the organization’s executive director, Carolyn Coleman, said. “Cities do not build homes, and for years have endured whiplash from the state’s scattershot approach to passing housing laws that are often in direct conflict with each other and counterproductive to our shared goals to increase housing supply.” 

More or less simultaneously, the state Department of Housing and Community Development put San Francisco on notice that the city’s recent rejection of two housing projects could run afoul of state law.

It ordered the city to provide “reasoning and evidence” for blocking more than 800 units of housing. Pro-housing groups have complained that cities often use the permitting process to stymie projects, even when they are being proposed for property zoned for housing, and recent law changes are aimed at preventing such arbitrary actions. 

Meanwhile, the state’s pressure on local officials to sanction more housing could be tested with a ballot measure next year. 

Angered by passage of two new state laws that open up more land for multi-family projects, Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10, some city officials are proposing an initiative measure that essentially would bar the state from overriding local land use laws.

The proponents have formed a new organization, Our Neighborhood Voices, to promote the initiative with “major funding from AIDS Healthcare Foundation.” It is a Los Angeles-based organization that has promoted pro-rent control and anti-development measures in the past and whose president, Michael Weinstein, has become a polarizing figure in California’s perennial housing debate. 

Our Neighborhood Voices contends that the two laws essentially strip local officials and residents of their ability to shape the ambience of neighborhoods and allow developers to do whatever they want to do without local input. 

“Voters strongly oppose the new state laws that strip our ability to speak out about what is happening literally right next door to our homes,” said Bill Brand, mayor of Redondo Beach, as the organization released a poll that found strong support for the proposed ballot measure. 

On multiple fronts, therefore, California’s skirmishing over control of housing development is escalating into all-out political war as state officials increase pressure on local officials and they try to erect a legal wall to protect their traditional land use authority.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times in Eureka.

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