court upholds California law limiting the ability of local governments to deny housing development applications | Perkins Coie



[co-author: Angela Luh]

In a recent landmark decision, the California Court of Appeals rejected a city’s interpretation of what constitutes an “hard” standard under the Housing Liability Act (HAA), Section 65589.5 of the Housing Code. government, and upheld the constitutionality of the law and the amendments that strengthened it.[1] The notice in California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund v. City of San Mateo reinforces and maintains the severe limitations imposed by the HAA on the local review of housing development applications.

The HAA tightly restricts the ability of a local government to disapprove a housing development project that “conforms to applicable standards and criteria and general plan, zoning and subdivision objectives, including design review standards. “. In 2017, the California legislature passed the first in a series of bills aimed at increasing the supply of housing, among other approaches, by strengthening the HAA. One of the 2017 bills tightened the restriction on the objective standards of the HAA by adding subdivision (f) (4) to Article 65589.5 of the Government Code. This subsection provides that a residential development project is deemed to comply with an applicable standard if “substantial evidence[…]would allow a reasonable person to conclude ”that this is the case.

In Californian tenants, the city of San Mateo (city) rejected an application to build a multi-family residential building with four floors and ten units. The court initially concluded that the City’s denial of the project was not in accordance with the HAA. The tribunal then considered and rejected arguments that subdivision (f) (4) was unconstitutional and, in the process, ruled that the HAA, as a whole, did not impermissibly infringe the rights of cities. chartered to control their own municipal affairs.

Compliance with “objective” standards

By denying the development application, the City concluded that the project did not comply with the adopted design guidelines. Yet the court determined that the relevant guidelines were not objective standards under the HAA due to their ambiguous language and lack of specificity, and, therefore, could not support disapproval of the draft. lodging.

The guidelines stated that “a transition or a high step is necessary” if the height of adjacent buildings varies by more than one storey. According to the City, a two-storey difference between the proposed structure and the adjacent single-family dwellings required a “setback” in the height of the building to comply with the guidelines.

The court ruled that the objective standards under the HAA do not include those that require “personal interpretation” or “subjective judgment,” and the court ruled that those design guidelines failed that test. Guidelines were unclear, the court determined, as to whether a height setback was necessary or, failing that, whether a height “transition” provided by the tall trees and trellises on the project might be sufficient. In addition, to the extent that the guidelines required a height recoil, they did not specify the extent of this recoil.

Constitutionality of the HAA

The court then upheld the constitutionality of the HAA against three arguments raised by the City. In its most important decision, the court disagreed with the City that the HAA and its amendments infringed the City’s right to “rule of origin” or control of its own municipal affairs by as a charter city. Citing legislative findings and the HAA’s express goal of ameliorating the housing crisis, the court concluded that the HAA “clearly addresses a statewide issue of concern” – the increase in state housing supply. In addition, the court ruled, the HAA is “narrowly designed” to avoid unnecessary interference in local governance. While the HAA limits the ability of local agencies to reject new housing on the basis of subjective criteria, the law leaves them free to establish compliant objective policies and development standards to meet local needs.

The court also rejected the City’s claims that HAA subdivision (f) (4) unconstitutionally delegates municipal functions and violates due process rights of neighboring landowners. The court ruled that the new statutory provision does not cede municipal authority to private individuals, nor prevent neighbors from having a meaningful opportunity to be heard.


For the second time this year, the Court of Appeals both rejected a charter city’s interpretation of a key state housing law and upheld the constitutionality of the law against a challenge to “Home rule“. The Californian tenants The court echoed the reasoning adopted by the court in April when it upheld Senate Bill 35 to streamline it against similar challenges. Taken together, the decisions demonstrate continued recognition by the courts that all local governments must comply with state housing law.

End Notes

[1] California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund v. City of San Mateo, nos A159320, A159658 (1st Dist. 10 Sep 2021).

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