The guerrilla war between Gov. Gavin Newsom and some of California’s 482 cities over housing policy is heating up.
The state has imposed quotas on local governments to provide – on paper – enough land for much-needed housing, particularly projects for low- and moderate-income families, and streamline permits for projects.
While most are complying, albeit with some reluctance, others are trying to thwart the mandate. Resistance is strongest in small suburban cities dominated by wealthy residents who live in spacious homes on very large lots and don’t want dense condo or apartment projects to spoil the bucolic atmosphere of their neighborhoods.
That said, the sharpest conflict in California’s housing war pits a not-so-wealthy Orange County city, Huntington Beach, against the state. The city has basically declared it won’t meet the state’s demands, and Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta are suing to force compliance.
“The City of Huntington Beach continues to attempt to evade their responsibility to build housing, but they will simply not win,” Newsom said last week, just before Huntington Beach formally declared its rebellion. “City leaders have a choice – build more housing or face very real consequences – including loss of state funds, substantial fines, and loss of local control.”
“The city has a duty to protect the quality and lifestyle of the neighborhoods that current owners have already bought into and for the future sustainability of Huntington Beach,” City Councilman Pat Burns wrote in a letter to his colleagues prior to their action. “Radical redevelopment in already-established residential neighborhoods is not only a threat to quality and lifestyle, but to the value of the adjacent and neighboring properties.”
Afterwards, Newsom’s office tweeted, “Tonight, Huntington Beach leaders decided that their residents don’t need affordable housing. This is a pathetic pattern by politicians more focused on taking down pride flags than on real solutions. CA needs more housing. Time for Huntington Beach to start acting like it.”
It’s at least noteworthy that the affluent suburbs seeking ways around their quotas, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, are overwhelmingly Democratic in their political orientation while Huntington Beach is a Republican stronghold.
Interestingly, while the battle over land use and housing continues elsewhere, residents of arguably California’s most exclusive community don’t have to worry about multi-family housing projects spoiling their ambiance because of a quirk in the law.
That would be Montecito, home to celebrities galore, including Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, Ellen DeGeneres and, most recently, expatriate British Prince Harry and his wife, actress Meghan Markle.
Montecito lies next to the Santa Barbara but is not a city. Rather, it is an unincorporated community governed by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
The county’s cities have their own quotas, but all of its unincorporated territory is folded into one quota of 5,664 units. The county’s plan, unveiled last month, identifies potential building sites, mostly near the cities of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria and the communities of Orcutt, Goleta, Isla Vista and Carpinteria.
Some of the sites are vacant while others are occupied, including some shopping centers and churches. None is in Montecito or an adjacent enclave called Summerland, even though the county’s inventory of vacant land includes about a dozen parcels, some of them fairly large, in those two communities.
When county officials outlined their plan at a public meeting this month they were asked why no sites in Montecito were included. County planning director Lisa Plowman said only sites whose owners were interested in development were chosen and no one in Montecito or Summerland was amenable to dense multi-family housing.
That’s why Oprah and her neighbors won’t be bothered.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters. Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers.