Original post: http://www.wsj.com/articles/california-housing-crunch-prompts-push-to-allow-building-1485368916 (access requires login)

Debate in most-populous state has advocates saying, ‘Yes, in my backyard’

Jan. 25, 2017 5:30 a.m. ET

Marco Gonzalez spent more than a decade suing real-estate developers in California over housing proposals that would have spoiled wetlands and gutted hillsides. The environmental lawyer won cases that stopped scores of units from being built.

Now he is on the opposite side, fighting cities and neighborhood groups in Southern California that fail to provide enough new housing units.

Mr. Gonzalez is among a growing group of advocates across California who are taking a once unthinkable approach to development in their backyards: They are trying to force cities to allow more of it.

The backlash comes as California’s lack of housing supply is becoming a crisis. After a postwar building boom gave birth to a labyrinth of freeways and sprawling suburbs, coastal metro areas in California between 1980 and 2010 added new housing units at about half the rate of the typical U.S. metro area.

During that period, California built an estimated 90,000 fewer units per year than were necessary to keep home price growth in line with the rest of the country, according to the state legislative analyst’s office. California—the nation’s most populous state—ranks 49th in the number of housing units per capita, ahead of only Utah, and it has the second-highest rate of overcrowding in the nation, trailing only Hawaii.

The supply shortage has driven up prices. In 1970 California home prices were about 30% higher than the U.S. median; today, California is more than 2.5 times pricier. In all, seven of the nation’s 10 most unaffordable markets, based on the amount of income spent on a mortgage, are in the Golden State.

But California’s complex land-use and regulatory structure gives opponents of development extraordinary powers to stymie new projects.

Environmental reviews intended to preserve California’s picturesque coastline and hillsides also provide a means for residents to challenge ordinary development proposals. If a review finds adverse impacts on parking, traffic, noise or air quality, elected officials can’t approve it until they have addressed opponents’ concerns.

Even after a project is approved, opponents can file environmental challenges, a process that can delay projects by two to four years.

A study by the law firm Holland & Knight found that more than 14,000 new housing units were the target of such lawsuits between 2013 and 2015 in Southern California. More than 98% of those were in dense urban areas and 70% were within a half mile of a major transit corridor—precisely where new housing units ought to crop up, urban planners say.

Michael Weinstein, president of a nonprofit in Los Angeles called the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said the city’s current approach leads to high-rise zoning on a case-by-case basis that benefits luxury developers.

He is spearheading a Los Angeles ballot initiative in March to halt dense high-rise construction needing exemptions to city zoning for two years. Supporters have taken out ads on large billboards across town that read “Stop Manhattanwood,” a reference to high-rise construction in the Hollywood area.

“Are we basically going to say that we don’t need planning, and it doesn’t matter if a high-rise goes next to a single-family home?” Mr. Weinstein asked.

But pro-housing activists are fighting back against antidevelopment campaigns, filing lawsuits, attending public hearings and organizing in support of much more building.

Mark Vallianatos is an environmentalist, former urban planning professor and founder of Abundant Housing LA, a group that is part of the emerging YIMBY (“Yes, in my backyard”) movement. He said in housing debates there are often advocates for affordable housing, along with developers pushing their own projects, “but no one’s out there pushing for more housing of all types.”

“It shouldn’t be such an onerous task to build housing when we have a housing crisis,” he said.

Mr. Gonzalez, the lawyer, has fought developers building sprawling projects in San Diego’s backcountry, while also representing builders and affordable housing groups he feels are pursuing smart projects. His conversion from environmental warrior to affordable-housing advocate came when he realized his actions were thwarting projects in areas where new supply is desperately needed to ease rising costs for owners and renters.

“I just saw it as untenable,” said Mr. Gonzalez. “This was a group of people who essentially believed their job is to stop the evolution of our community.”

Paul Habibi, an apartment developer who is also a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, said he understands the concerns about favoritism for luxury developers seeking one-off approvals to Los Angeles’ outdated zoning code. But he said the shortage of housing is so severe that “you just can’t build enough units at any price point.”

“The reality is that growth needs to come from all directions, whether it’s high-end housing, midtier or the subsidized affordable units,” he said.

Write to Chris Kirkham at [email protected]

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Some Housing Advocates in California Use Lawsuits to Push Agenda

Original post: http://www.wsj.com/articles/california-housing-crunch-prompts-push-to-allow-building-1485368916 (access requires login)

Court actions aim to force towns to follow state law mandating housing plans

A “for lease” sign is posted in front of an apartment building in Berkeley, Calif., in 2012 California requires cities to adopt long-term plans to provide sufficient housing to keep up with population growth. PHOTO: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES

Jan. 25, 2017 5:30 a.m. ET

As affordable-housing advocates push back against environmental challenges to what they view as sensible development proposals, some are taking the fight to court.

California state law requires cities to adopt long-term plans that will provide sufficient housing to keep up with job growth and population demands, but critics say the state hasn’t done enough to enforce the law. The state can withhold distribution of grant money to noncompliant cities, but rarely goes after them in court. For years many cities have submitted plans and then done nothing to carry them out.

Housing advocacy groups have sued towns that fail to carry out their housing plans through the years. A nonprofit housing group sued the Orange County city of Huntington Beach in 2015, after city officials scaled down a plan that would have allowed higher-density affordable and market-rate housing. In 2009 Jerry Brown, then California’s attorney general, joined a lawsuit against the Bay Area suburb of Pleasanton challenging limits on new housing. The city eventually settled the case and lifted the restrictions.

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More recently, a group called the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund last year sued the city of Lafayette, another Bay Area suburb, for converting a multifamily housing project into a single-family development with fewer units. The group has also taken legal action against the city of Berkeley, prompting the city council to review a decision to deny construction of new housing.

The San Diego suburb of Encinitas hasn’t fulfilled a housing plan in more than two decades, and voters in November chose not to adopt one in a citywide referendum.

That leaves the city open to litigation from Marco Gonzalez, a former environmental lawyer-turned affordable-housing advocate. Mr. Gonzalez has fought antidevelopment neighborhood groups in Encinitas and surrounding towns in the past and threatened to file a lawsuit in October if the election failed.

He hasn’t sued yet, saying he is waiting to see what happens after the appointment of a new council member to fill a seat vacated by the city’s newly elected mayor.

“Sometimes you need to have a stick,” he said, “and whack a few cities over the head.”

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear said the city will hold a forum early next month to figure out a consensus on how to move forward with a housing plan the community will support. Though Ms. Blakespear said she doesn’t believe higher-density development is best situated in a suburban setting such as Encinitas, farther away from transit, she said the city can’t ignore state law.

“The bigger picture is that we’re wasting city money on these lawsuits where we don’t have any possibility of winning,” she said. “We can’t just close the door and say ‘no more housing here.’ It’s legally not an option.”

Write to Chris Kirkham at [email protected]