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Judge Rules Controversial State Housing Law Unconstitutional


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By Jorge Casuso

April 24, 2024 -- In a major blow to State control over local development, a Superior Court judge on Monday found a California law allowing multi-family buildings on single-family lots unconstitutional.

SB 9, which took effect in January 2022, allows lots zoned for a single-family home to be split into two lots with two homes each without requiring a public process.

The law was championed by affordable housing advocates and developers who viewed it as a way of addressing California's housing crisis and staunchly opposed by slow-growth advocates who predicted it would destroy single-family neighborhoods.

In a 12-page ruling, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Curtis A. Kin found that while the State can override local laws to address issues of "statewide concern," SB 9's "lack of connection to affordable housing is evident."

"The court finds that SB 9 is neither reasonably related to ensuring access to affordable housing nor narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessary interference in local governments.

"SB 9 is therefore unconstitutional as violative of the 'home rule' doctrine," Kin wrote.

Attorney Pam Lee of Aleshire & Wynder, LLP, which represents five Southern California cities against the State and Attorney General Rob Bonta, called the decision "a monumental victory for all charter cities in California.”

Bonta's office has not indicated if it will appeal the decision.

In Santa Monica, as in many of the State's 121 charter cities, SB 9 -- which was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom days after surviving a recall election in September 2021 -- became a deeply divisive issue.

In February 2021, a newly seated City Council voted 5 to 1 to oppose the Senate bill, marking a major break with previous pro-growth Councils ("New Council Breaks With Past Housing Policies," February 10, 2021).

The new Councilmembers -- who ran on a slow-growth platform -- warned the law would encourage land speculators and developers to replace single family homes in less expensive parts of town.

"Not only would this destroy the remaining (single family)neighborhoods," said Councilmember Phil Brock, "but we're not adding more affordability but more profitability."

Councilmember Gleam Davis, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said SB 9 would "support more affordable family housing throughout Santa Monica."

While voting to oppose the measure, the Council did not vote to join the lawsuit filed by the Cities of Redondo Beach, Carson, Torrance, Whittier and Del Mar.

The petitioners claim that SB 9 "violates the California Constitution because it is neither reasonably related to its stated concern of ensuring access to affordable housing nor narrowly tailored to avoid interference with local government."

In his ruling Monday, Judge Kin found the law does not require the developments approved administratively "to be available at below market levels" and, therefore, "has, at best, an attenuated connection to affordable housing."

"(T)he Legislature cannot rely on a potential, eventual decrease in price resulting from increased housing supply to demonstrate that SB 9 would increase the supply of affordable (i.e., below market-rate) housing," Kin wrote.

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