Build, Or Else

State fights cities over affordable housing excuses

By Gary Delsohn
July 2023

A few years ago, when my wife and I looked for a house to buy after returning to Sacramento from Southern California, we found the perfect place near Tahoe Park.

We liked the neighborhood. The house was updated and reasonably priced. The only drawback was a homeless encampment in the park across the street. That made me uncomfortable. We decided not to bid on the house.

The experience came back to me recently while reading about the lawsuit filed against the city of Elk Grove by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Department of Housing and Community Development. California is taking the city to court over its denial of a low-income housing project known as Oak Rose in Elk Grove’s Old Town.

Citing a Stanford study that identifies a link between homelessness and high housing costs, the state’s lawsuit says, “California has a crisis-level housing shortage that stems in part from the failure of local governments to approve affordable housing to meet the needs of all Californians. … The lack of attainable housing has a particularly acute effect on those struggling to find housing or stay housed. California has the largest homeless population of any state, with 161,658 homeless people as of January 2020.”

The 66-unit Oak Rose project was designed to provide permanent housing for people who were formerly homeless or have disabilities. In turning down the project, Elk Grove officials said it violated local zoning rules that require ground floor commercial space in such developments.

But if you believe the language of the state’s lawsuit and the officials behind it, the commercial requirement is a subterfuge.

“California has critically important laws designed to combat housing discrimination and increase affordable housing opportunities,” Bonta said when the complaint was filed. “Today’s lawsuit against Elk Grove sends a strong message to local governments: if you violate fair housing laws, we will hold you to account.”

While some may see the state’s action as heavy-handed meddling in local decisions, Bonta and Newsom deserve credit for putting down this marker regarding California’s seemingly intractable homeless crisis.

People wind up without a roof over their heads for a lot of reasons. Drug addiction and other mental health problems. The sudden loss of a job and no financial cushion. Medical issues and more. But a shortage of affordable housing is high on the list.

In suing Elk Grove, which insists it’s done nothing wrong and intends to fight the lawsuit, the state seeks to ensure, among other things, that cities don’t violate Senate Bill 35.

Sponsored by state Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, the 2017 law seeks to streamline construction of some housing projects as long as they are consistent with overall zoning standards. Not coincidentally, the law is set to expire in 2025. Weiner wants to make it permanent and more expansive.

Most of us feel bad when we see a homeless person, but we have become accustomed to looking the other way and going about our business. I have been guilty of it. So are a number of California cities.

The state recently amended its earlier lawsuit against Huntington Beach in Orange County, claiming the city violated another recent state law designed to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units in neighborhoods previously zoned exclusively for single-family housing.

“California will continue taking every step necessary to ensure everyone is building their fair share of housing and not flouting state housing laws at the expense of the community,” Newsom said.

It would be preferable if the state didn’t have to sue to get cities to build more affordable housing. But human nature being what it is, sometimes a little coercion may be necessary.

Gary Delsohn can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento

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