California Housing Accountability Act

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The Housing Accountability Act (HAA) is a California state law designed to promote infill development by speeding housing approvals. The Act was passed in 1982 in recognition that "the lack of housing, including emergency shelter, is a critical statewide problem," and has colloquially been referred to as "the anti-NIMBY law." It empowers the State of California to limit the ability of local government to restrict the development of new housing.[1] The Act was strengthened by its amendment in 2017.

Purpose and procedural mandates[edit]

The Act applies to housing applications to local agencies within the State of California that meet the following criteria:[2]

  • Meet a city's "objective general plan and zoning standards," e.g. the local zoning rules. A developer cannot use the HAA to build a 6-story building in an area that is zoned for 3 story buildings.
  • The development would not cause a "significant, adverse impact" to public health, or take water from bordering farms or preserved resources.

If an application meets these criteria, the relevant city council or planning commission must vote to approve the application and provide necessary permits within 90 to 180 days, with the shorter deadline for projects that include affordable housing and/or government funding. If the city votes to decline the application it must make a written finding specifying the section of the HAA the application violates. The city is also forbidden from proposing modifications that would reduce the number of units to be developed, or passing zoning rules that would retroactively make the application non compliant.

In particular, the "objective general plan and zoning standards" rule prohibits a city from rejecting projects for arbitrary reasons like "it does not fit with the neighborhood character," unless "neighborhood character" has been defined previously in the design guidelines or zoning code in some way, e.g. "all buildings on the block must have a Spanish tile roof."

2017 Amendment to the HAA[edit]

The California State Legislature passed several amendments, in 2016 and 2017, which modified the HAA to update its findings about the state housing shortage, and to strengthen its enforcement powers. The amended Act mandates that judges award attorneys fees to successful petitioners under the Act. In addition, judges would have the power to fine cities found in violation of the HAA. SB 167 was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on September 29, 2017. [3][4]

Litigation involving the HAA[edit]

A number of lawsuits have been filed in recent years alleging violations of the HAA. The cases have helped establish conditions where the HAA does and does not apply.

Sequoyah Hills Homeowners Assn. v. City of Oakland 1993[edit]

WPN, a developer, wanted to build a project in the Oakland Hills. The City of Oakland completed an environmental impact report, which certified several different options: one with 63 units, one with 45 homes, and one with 36 homes on wider lots. A number of nearby residents were vehemently opposed to the project. In 1991, the City approved the option with 45 homes. In particular, the City found that the HAA prevented them from asking the developer to reduce the number of units on the lot. A neighborhood homeowners association sued the city. The judge ruled in favor of the city, confirming their judgment that they could not legally ask the developer to reduce the number of units.[5]

Honchariw v. County of Stanislaus 2011[edit]

Nicholas Honchariw, a developer, wanted to build 8 market-rate homes on a plot of 33 acres in Stanislaus County. The county initially rejected the application, arguing that the plot did not meet the county's requirement that every subdivision have a public water connection.[6] The developer filed a lawsuit, arguing that some of the units had public water connections, and that he planned to create the necessary connections for the other units. In November 2011, an appeals court ruled in the developer's favor, saying the County's logic to deny subdivisions was circular: subdivisions could not be found in violation of the county ordinance until they had been created, and this could not be used as a valid reason to deny the subdivision approvals. The ruling also set a precedent that the HAA also applies to 100% market rate developments. [7]

North 40 development in Los Gatos 2017[edit]

In September 2016 the city of Los Gatos voted 3-2 to reject an application to develop the North 40, a plot of land then mostly orchard.[8] Council members who voted 'No' stated that the proposal did not fit with the city's Specific Plan. The developers sued, arguing that the city's rejection violated the HAA. In June 2017, a judge of the Superior Court of Santa Clara County ordered the city to reconsider the developer's proposal in accordance with the objective standards mandated by the HAA.[9] In August 2017, the City Council voted to approve the project.[10]

SFBARF v. City of Berkeley 2017[edit]

In April 2015, a developer submitted an application to tear down a dilapidated building at 1310 Haskell Street in Berkeley, and replace it with three two-story homes. In July 2016, the Berkeley City Council voted 5-0 (with 4 abstentions) to deny the proposal. The city was sued by the SF Bay Area Renters Federation, who argued that denying the application violated the HAA. In October 2016, the city settled the lawsuit by agreeing to reconsider the proposal.[1]

In July 2017, the judge ruled in favor of SFBARF.[11] In September 2017, the Berkeley City Council voted to approve the project and settle the lawsuit.[12][13]


  1. ^ a b Knobel, Lance (1 March 2017). "Legal action likely after council rejects housing project on Haskell Street".
  2. ^ "California Government Code section 65589.5".
  3. ^ "Bill Text - SB-167 Housing Accountability Act".
  4. ^ "Gov. Brown signs bill to help enforce pro-housing law", at California Apartment Association, Sept. 21, 1916. Accessed 2017-11-21.
  5. ^ Phelan, Michael J. "Sequoyah Hills Homowners Assn. v. City of Oakland, 23 Cal. App. 4th 704 - Cal: Court of Appeal". Google Scholar. California Court of Appeals. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  6. ^ "Case Study: Honchariw V. County Of Stanislaus - Law360".
  7. ^ Franson, Donald R. "Honchariw v. County of Stanislaus, 200 Cal. App. 4th 1066 - Cal: Court of Appeal, 5th Appellate Dist. 2011". Google Scholar. California Court of Appeals. Retrieved 19 June 2017.
  8. ^ Peterson, Judy (2016-09-02). "Los Gatos: Town council rejects proposed North 40 development". The Mercury News.
  9. ^ Peterson, Judy (2017-06-14). "North 40: Judge orders Los Gatos to reconsider rejected plan for 320 homes". The Mercury News.
  10. ^ Peterson, Judy (2017-08-04). "End of an era: North 40 development is approved". The Mercury News.
  11. ^ Taylor, Tracey. "Berkeley's bid to stop new housing being built overruled by judge". Berkleyside. Berkeleyside. Retrieved 23 August 2017.
  12. ^ Taylor, Tracey (2017-09-08). "After long legal dispute, Berkeley approves application to build 3 homes on Haskell Street". Berkleyside. Berkeleyside. Retrieved 2 February 2018.
  13. ^ Kim, Alicia (2017-12-05). "Housing development on Haskell Street ready for development". The Daily Californian. The Daily Californian. Retrieved 2 February 2018.