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Council Takes Initial Step to Challenge Housing Mandate

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By Jorge Casuso

September 29, 2021 -- The City Council on Tuesday voted 5 to 2 to ask a group of Westside cities if it should join a lawsuit challenging the region's State-mandated housing quota.

The lawsuit filed in June by the Orange County Council of Governments (OCCOG) claims the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) used wrong population forecast data to vastly overestimate housing needs in Southern California.

Placed on the agenda by Councilmember Phil Brock, the item triggered a short but heated debate over the risks of pushing to reduce Santa Monica's mandate to plan to build 8,895 residential units, 6,168 of them affordable, by 2029.

Brock said he sees little risk in a move that reflects "the will of the residents," who oppose a "huge allotment" of new housing in Santa Monica that would "change the character of the city."

The Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) allocation, Brock said, "is tremendously higher than out past RHNA requirements, and it seems there has been controversy about this for the last year and a half."

The lawsuit, he said, "would quell the controversy" with little financial liability to the City if it joins as part of the Westside Cities Council of Governments (WSCCOG) ("Santa Monica Could Join in Challenge to State Housing Mandates," September 23, 2021).

In addition to Santa Monica, the group includes Beverly Hills, Culver City, West Hollywood, the City of Los Angeles Council Districts 5 and 11 and the County of Los Angeles.

Councilmember Gleam Davis strongly disagreed with the move, saying it was "ludicrous" for the lawsuit to argue that HCD's allocations "were pulled out of thin air and were not correctly vetted."

"This is one of the weakest petitions for writ of mandate I've seen in my forty years of practicing law," Davis said.

She noted that the City is currently negotiating a new Housing Element with HCD that attempts to meet the very allocation the lawsuit challenges.

"Even suggesting this to (WSCCOG) has the potential, pardon my French, to piss (HCD) off," she said. "On the one hand we are telling them to trust us and on the other hand we're telling (WSCCOG) sue."

The move shows "bad faith" in meeting the City's obligations and would pose a financial liability to the City if the Housing Element is challenged in court, she said.

"We are opening ourselves up" to hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential legal fees, she said.

Brock shot back that "bad faith would be ignoring the residents."

"We need to stand up for our residents," he said. "Residents have been asking us to fight back to see if this is a correct number."

"I don't think we can equate fear of approval of our Housing Element for not fighting for what is right," he said. "I don't want us to live in fear. I want us to do what's right."

In the final vote, Councilmember Kristin McCowan joined Davis in dissenting.

Mayor Sue Himmelrich joined the majority, which included the three "Change" Councilmembers elected in November on a slow-growth platform.

"I think the (WSCCOG) should take it up," said the mayor, who as one of the Council's representatives to the group would present the proposal.

"My problem is with the lawsuit and whether it could be successful," she said.

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