The Housing Accountability Act (HAA) (Government Code § 65589.5) was enacted 40 years ago as part of a broad legislative efforts to address California’s housing crises. HAA was designed to significantly increase the approval and construction of new housing for all economic segments of California’s communities by meaningfully and effectively curbing the capability of local governments to deny, reduce the density for, or render infeasible housing development projects and emergency shelters. As one way to encourage housing construction, HAA bars local agencies from denying any proposed “housing development project” unless the denial is based on objective criteria or the agency finds that the project would adversely impact public health or safety (Government Code § 65589.5, subd. (j)(1)).
Reznitskiy v. County of Marin, 1st Appellate District (“Court”) dealt squarely with the issue of whether HAA applies to a single-family residence or only to multi-family projects. Developers argued that the HAA applies to all housing projects, while local governments and the Department of Housing and Community Development (“Department”) argued HAA only applies to residential projects of two units or more. After an extensive review of the legislative history and the amendments and proposed amendments to HAA, the Court determined HAA applies to multi-unit developments and does not apply to the construction of a single-family residence.
BOARD OF SUPERVISORS DENIED PLAINTIFFS PROPOSAL TO CONSTRUCT A SINGLE-FAMILY HOME 3,872 SQUARE FEET AS A SINGLE-FAMILY HOME WAS NOT SUBJECT TO HAA
In 2016, Plaintiffs applied to build a single-family home and accessory dwelling unit totally 5,145 square feet on a 1.76-acre lot they own in San Anselmo. After receiving comments from the Marin County’s Community Development Agency (“Agency”), Plaintiffs removed the accessory dwelling unit and reduced the house’s floor plan to 3,872 square feet. In February 2019, Agency issued an administrative decision approving the project. The decision found the project was compatible with the surrounding neighborhood and consistent with the Marin Countywide Plan and the Marin County Code’s mandatory findings for design review.
Neighbors appealed the Agency’s decision to the Planning Commission (Commission). The neighbors argued that the size of the project rendered it incompatible with the neighborhood and provided a survey showing the average size of the nearest 25 residences was 1,544 square feet, significantly smaller than plaintiff’s proposed house. The Agency prepared a staff report recommending that its administrative decision be upheld. The Commission unanimously voted to grant the neighbors’ appeal and deny the permit.
Plaintiffs then appealed to the Board of Supervisors (“Board” or “County”). Among other arguments, the Plaintiffs claimed that “further downsizing” of the project was unnecessary and that the project’s denial violated the HAA. The Agency submitted a letter to the Board recommending that the Project’s denial be upheld, now agreeing that the Project was outsized for the neighborhood and would unduly impact the creek and environment. The letter concluded HAA applied to “large-scale housing projects such as mixed use, multiple residential unit projects, transitional and supportive housing,” and the project did not qualify as such a [such] a higher density residential project.” The Board upheld the Commission’s decision denying the project. The resolution adopted by the Board of Supervisors affirmed that the proposed residence was oversized and concluded that the HAA did not apply to the project.
The Plaintiffs filed a writ of administrative mandamus in the trial court to challenge the County’s denial of the project. In December 2020, the trial court denied the writ and Plaintiffs appealed to the Appellate Court.
FIRST DISTRICT COURT OF APPEAL DETERMINED A PROJECT TO BUILD ONE SINGLE-FAMILY HOME IS NOT A “HOUSING DEVELOPMENT PROJECT” UNDER THE HAA
The issue before the Court was did the Plaintiffs’ proposal to build a single-family home qualified as a “housing development project.” Government Code § 65589.5(j) requires that when a proposed housing development project complies with applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards, in effect at the time the application was deemed complete, the local agency cannot disapprove the project or impose a condition that the project be developed at a lower density unless the local agency makes specific findings for an exception. There was no dispute in the case that the Board did not make the required findings as the Board found the proposal to build a single-family home did not qualify as a “housing development project” under HAA.
Government Code § 65589.5(h)(2) provides a “housing development project” means a use consisting of any of the following: (A) residential units only (B) mixed-use developments consisting of residential and nonresidential uses with at least two-thirds of the square footage designated for residential use (C) transitional housing or supportive housing. There was no case law interpreting this statutory definition, with the closest case being Honchariw v. County of Stanislaus (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 1072, 1075 (Honchariw I) holding that subdivision (j) is not limited to affordable housing projects. In passing the Honchariw I court stated that since the project contemplated eight single-family homes, its anticipated use fell under subdivision (h) as residential units. (Honchariw I, at p. 1074)
The Court initially reviewed the statute and determined that the language was not dispositive in this case. The legislation did not explicitly define the words “housing,” “development,” or “project,” either individually or collectively. Rather, the term “means a use” consisting of one of three types, thus focusing on the purpose a project must have to be subject to subdivision (j)’s stricter requirements for disapproval. The County argued the Court should rely on the literal meaning of “units” to mean that it was intended to apply to two or more units vs. a single-family residence. The Court rejected this interpretation, stating if that was the interpretation, then in subdivision (h)(B) the Court must interpreted “mixed-use developments” to apply to only two mix-use developments, which is an absurd result and not the intention of the legislation.
The Court then conducted an exhaustive evaluation of the legislative history, including amendments to the HAA and proposed amendments to HAA over the last 40 years. Thus, the Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, concluding that single-family residence is not subject to HAA, and the Board did not need to make the findings required by HAA to deny the Project.
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The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.