Until now, the notorious “builder’s remedy” had not been tested in court, leaving developers with serious questions about how it works and whether it’s worth potential legal challenges from unamenable cities. Recently, however, a superior court in Los Angeles referenced the builder’s remedy in a ruling that implied the remedy is available in the City of La Cañada Flintridge. This case, and others that are still in the pipeline, will have significant implications for developers who have filed builder’s remedy projects, or are considering doing so, as well as for cities across the state.
According to the HCD’s Housing Element Review and Compliance Report (as of 7/24/23), only 33 out of 109 Bay Area jurisdictions have adopted fully compliant Housing Elements. As discussed in our previous e-update, the deadline for Bay Area cities and counties to revise housing elements has passed, and those that remain noncompliant have opened themselves up to builder’s remedy projects.
The builder’s remedy is a mechanism in the Housing Accountability Act that prohibits any city that has not adopted a compliant housing element by the required deadline from applying its general plan and zoning standards to reject certain housing development projects. To qualify for the builder’s remedy, a project must provide either 20% of the units as affordable to 80% AMI households (low-income), or 100% of the units as affordable to 120% AMI households (moderate-income).
Because the builder’s remedy has never been tested in court, there is uncertainty about how the builder’s remedy applies in practice and how cities will process these projects. Many cities that failed to adopt compliant housing elements have openly defied state law by stating that the builder’s remedy doesn’t apply to them or by passing an ordinance banning builder’s remedy projects.
La Cañada Flintridge Case
Southern California jurisdictions were required to adopt their updated Housing Element by October 15, 2021. The City of La Cañada Flintridge adopted its Housing Element on October 4, 2022, which was determined to be inadequate by HCD. On February 21, 2023, the city adopted an amended Housing Element, which HCD again found to not be in substantial compliance with state law.
While stopping short of confirming HCD’s finding and determining whether the substance of the city’s Housing Element complied with state law, the court found that the Housing Element is not in compliance with state law because the city missed mandatory deadlines. Specifically, the city failed to adopt a Housing Element within 120 days of the deadline and was therefore subject to the penalty requiring it to complete its rezoning within one year of the statutory deadline-i.e., by October 15, 2022- instead of the three years otherwise permitted. Because the city’s challenged Housing Element was not adopted until February 21, 2023, and the Housing Element had still not been certified by HCD, the court was required to find that the city’s Housing Element will not be in substantial compliance with the Housing Element Law until the required rezoning is complete. This appears to put to rest the idea that a city can avoid all the consequences of failing to obtain HCD certification by “self-certifying” its own Housing Element.
Although the city argued that the timelines under the Housing Element Law are purely directory, the court disagreed and confirmed that the timelines are mandatory. In making that finding, the court looked to the penalties that apply for missing the deadlines and confirmed “there are at least two significant penalties for failing to timely adopt a housing element. First, there is the rezoning penalty…that is the subject of this litigation…Second, the HAA contains [the] builder’s remedy that limits a city’s ability to deny a development for low-cost housing unless its housing element…is in substantial compliance with the Housing Element Law.” To our knowledge, this is the first time a court has opined on or directly referenced the builder’s remedy by name.
The court did not issue an explicit declaration that the builder’s remedy applies in the city because the organization that filed the lawsuit, Californians for Homeownership, did not have legal standing without a pending project. Nevertheless, the judge seemed to signal that a developer with a pending project may be able to obtain such a declaration.
The court’s acknowledgment of the builder’s remedy is a positive sign for those with a pending builder’s remedy project. According to the Real Deal, the president of the California Association of Realtors said in a statement, “For far too long, certain cities and counties have treated compliance with state housing laws as optional. This decision sends a clear message: complying with these laws is not optional.”
As discussed in our previous e-update, other housing advocacy groups have also filed lawsuits against jurisdictions that are out of compliance with the Housing Element Law. We will continue to keep you updated as decisions are issued in these cases.
Authored by Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP Attorney Sabrina Eshaghi.
The issues discussed in this update are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient. Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein. Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP is a full service real estate law firm. We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law. We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leasing, acquisitions and sales, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.