ZFP’s clients win major victory against City of Los Angeles, overturning residential zoning constraints in America’s second-largest metro

In a significant new ruling that could have far-reaching impacts on housing production, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge has held that homebuilders may disregard the City’s restrictive zoning and instead refer to the higher-density General Plan to determine the maximum number of housing units that can be built on a lot. This decision stands to dramatically increase the amount of housing that can be built in Los Angeles.

In a 42-page decision, the Hon. James C. Chalfant held that the City’s zoning practices violate the state’s Housing Accountability Act and unlawfully limit the development of denser housing. The Court found that the City violated state housing laws by refusing to process applications for a 67-unit apartment project on a lot that is zoned for single-family use.

BACKGROUND

In May 2020, Janet Jha submitted an application to construct a 67-unit housing project pursuant to the state Density Bonus Law, with seven units designated for very-low-income disabled veterans, along the largest commercial corridor in LA’s San Fernando Valley community. The project site is designated by the General Plan’s “Canoga Park-Winnetka-Woodland Hills-West Hills Community Plan” as Limited Commercial (which allows commercial and high-density-residential uses), but the lot is zoned for Suburban use (which allows only one single-family home).

Ms. Jha submitted a preliminary application under the state Housing Crisis Act (also known as SB 330), as well as a full development application. The City refused to accept the applications on the basis that the project includes more housing units than the zoning allows. Jha argued that the City should instead defer to the General Plan’s maximum housing density, as required by the Housing Accountability Act (Government Code section 65589.5).

Zacks, Freedman & Patterson, PC filed the successful lawsuit on behalf of petitioner Yes In My Back Yard (“YIMBY Law”), a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the accessibility and affordability of housing in California by enforcing state housing laws.

IMPACT

Most importantly, the Court held that the City’s General Plan (a state-mandated, forward-looking policy document) determines the maximum number of housing units that can be built on a lot – not the property’s zoning, which is often more restrictive. The Court interpreted the Housing Accountability Act to require that when “zoning for the project site is inconsistent with the general plan,” the City must allow the application to move forward without requiring a rezoning. In this case, the Court held, “The Property’s RA [Suburban] zoning is inconsistent with the General Plan’s Limited Commercial designation under the [Housing Accountability Act].” (Ruling, p. 41.) Therefore, the General Plan prevails and higher-density housing is permitted.

Even when a lot’s zoning is consistent with the General Plan, under Friday’s ruling, the General Plan still prevails. In such a case, the Court writes, “the City still may only apply objective [zoning] standards (e.g., setbacks, coverage, height, etc.) to the degree that they facilitate the density allowed by” the General Plan. (Ruling at p. 41.) As a result, real estate developers can build the maximum number of housing units allowed by the General Plan.

The Court also found that the City violated the Housing Crisis Act and the Permit Streamlining Act by refusing to accept Jha’s applications. Additionally, the City violated state law by repeatedly refusing to allow Jha to appeal the City’s actions.

Ryan J. Patterson, attorney for petitioner YIMBY Law, said, “For decades, the City used zoning to prevent housing development, leading to today’s massive housing shortage and affordability crisis. The Court’s ruling means that California’s largest city can now build thousands of higher-density housing projects that zoning would have otherwise blocked – directly tackling the state’s housing crisis. This is the most significant ruling on housing in recent memory.”

The Court’s ruling concludes: “The Petition is granted. A writ shall issue deeming the SB 330 application to have been submitted, deeming the Project application complete, and directing the City to comply with the [Housing Accountability Act] in 60 days.” (Ruling, p. 42.)

Said Patterson, “The City refused to accept development applications for high-density housing on a single-family-zoned lot, and we pushed back. The City demanded signed zoning forms to complete the project application, but it also refused to sign the forms. It’s a Catch-22, and it’s illegal.” Patterson added, “Housing in Los Angeles is no longer limited by the City’s exclusionary zoning practices.”

The City has filed a motion for reconsideration and new trial, which the Court is expected to hear on September 29.

The case is Yes In My Back Yard, et al. v. City of Los Angeles, et al., Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. 21STCP03883. A copy of the Court’s decision is available at https://zacks.egnyte.com/dl/sWVVMnq5VA.

 

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