It may now seem like a lifetime ago given the ubiquity and enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on our everyday lives, but it has actually only been a few months since California’s chronic and acute shortage of housing had been monopolizing our attention. While we shelter in place and try to imagine what the world will look like after things get back to “normal,” our housing crisis has not gone away, notwithstanding our notice being drawn elsewhere. Even as we must cope with the impacts of the coronavirus, it would behoove us not to forget about this problem.
With this in mind, this week’s article focuses on a recent court decision in a case I highlighted in this blog several months ago involving the City of Los Altos. At the time, I reported that the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (“CaRLA”), a housing nonprofit known for suing local governments for their housing policies, had challenged the city’s rejection of a five-story, 15-unit, mixed-use project proposed to be built in downtown Los Altos. The city disallowed the development on the ground that it failed to meet the streamlined approval requirements of SB 35, despite the fact that it was specifically designed to satisfy that law and had been found in compliance by the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
In late April, Judge Helen Williams of the Santa Clara County Superior Court issued her ruling in CaRLA’s lawsuit against the City of Los Altos, finding the city must allow this development to move forward as proposed. As noted in my prior post, one of the primary justifications relied on by the city in opposing this design was that it was “out of character” with downtown Los Altos. In making her pronouncement, however, Judge Williams determined that the city had violated the requirements of SB 35 as well as the state Housing Accountability Act in disapproving this proposal, concluding that the city failed to provide Ted and Jerry Sorensen, the longtime developers of this property, with any objective standards to apply.
Furthermore, Judge Williams held that the city acted in bad faith in rejecting the development, from its staff’s handling of the project application, through the planning department appeals procedure, and finally in denying the project. Rebuking the city, Judge Williams wrote: “In addition to tactics such as demanding an administrative appeal on less than one day’s notice and using strained constructions and textual interpretations to assert that the developer had presented two applications that had to be withdrawn, the city denied the streamlining application with a facially deficient letter and later adopted a resolution enumerating insufficient reasons for the denial.” According to Victoria Fierce of CaRLA, cities should be on notice that they no longer have the discretion to reject otherwise compliant housing projects they simply do not like. “Here, Los Altos lied and put up barriers to approval at every step, never expecting a court would hold them accountable,” noted Ms. Fierce.
Understandably, the City of Los Altos is displeased with Judge Williams’s decision. It is one thing to lose a case; it is something else again to be found to be in bad faith, especially having to bear the costs of suit and attorneys’ fees of the prevailing party. And, as hinted by Ms. Fierce, the court’s ruling must be on the radar of anyone involved in projects being advanced pursuant to SB 35. In particular, since Judge Williams is also handling the pending litigation over the SB 35 approval of the redevelopment of the old Vallco mall, her decision here can only further serve to fuel speculation over the ultimate outcome of that case.
A copy of Judge Williams’s order may be found here.