In a low-key San Francisco office decorated with "legalize housing" T-shirts and a fluffy, avocado-shaped throw pillow, a tiny group of advocates is trying to sue their way out of the Bay Area housing crisis.
The four-person California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, or CaRLA, has one reason for being -- to sue cities that reject housing projects without a valid reason. The litigious nonprofit with YIMBY roots struck again last month, suing Los Altos after the city rejected a developer's bid to streamline a project of 15 apartments plus ground-floor office space.
It's a bold strategy and one advocates say fills the enforcement hole in California housing policy. But it's also helping push housing decisions out of city council chambers and into the courtroom -- removing those key issues from local control and further stoking the flames of bitter contention that often surround Bay Area housing debates.
As the Bay Area struggles with a housing shortage that's driving up home prices and rents, and some building proposals that could alleviate the crunch get bogged down or denied amid pushback from neighbors, CaRLA's founder, Sonja Trauss, sees her mission as simple:
She's here to enforce the law.
"Something, by hook or by crook, has to make these cities actually build housing," said Trauss, a 37-year-old law school dropout turned housing advocate, who has a lawyer on staff and also works with an outside law firm to file her cases. Her group's unofficial motto is "sue the suburbs."
But critics argue suing the suburbs is not the best way out of the housing crisis. Development decisions should be made locally and with community input, not in courtrooms under pressure from outside groups such as CaRLA, said Susan Kirsch, founder of slow-growth group Livable California.
"These people (city councils) are so dedicated and are working so hard to find the solutions, to get the right affordable housing mix and the right jobs-housing balance," she said. "And then to have the threat of a lawsuit, it's just unfortunate, I think."
In late July, Trauss' group sued Los Altos over the city's ruling that a residential and office project proposed on North Main Street did not qualify for streamlined approval under the state's new SB 35 law. That law requires cities to expedite approval of certain residential and mixed-use projects. The city said the project didn't have enough residential space to qualify under the law, among other issues, but the lawsuit takes issue with how that calculation was reached.
Los Altos Mayor Lynette Lee Eng said the city remains confident in its decision to reject the application.
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"This project would result in a five-story building surrounded by two-story buildings, which goes against our General Plan and is completely out of character with our downtown aesthetic," Lee Eng wrote in an emailed statement.
Trauss' cases are based on the argument that rejecting zoning-compliant projects not only exacerbates the housing crisis -- it's illegal. Her weapon of choice is the state's Housing Accountability Act, which says officials cannot deny or reduce the density of a housing project that complies with the city's general plan and zoning rules, unless the project poses specific public health and safety concerns. Since 2016, CaRLA has sued nine cities over allegedly improper project denials or illegal housing ordinances, including San Mateo, Berkeley, Lafayette and San Francisco. Of those, four have resulted in settlements that forced officials to approve the housing.
Dublin, for example, was forced to approve a 220-unit apartment building next to the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station last year as part of a settlement with CaRLA. Four other cases are ongoing, and one case settled without the project getting approved. CaRLA also has sent dozens of letters to cities -- including Cupertino over the contentious Vallco Mall site -- warning officials against taking action that would violate state law.
"I think the bigger impact they're having is that cities are now on notice that they can't be scofflaw cities and not face any consequences," said Matt Regan, senior vice president of public policy for the Bay Area Council.
Trauss says she learned her techniques from the other side. She watched residents opposed to new housing derail projects with lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. The Housing Accountability Act is her way of fighting back, Trauss said
To wage that fight, CaRLA raised almost $400,000 last year from donors and grants, Trauss said. She shares an office with the more well-known housing advocacy group YIMBY Action, an organization she helped found and still works closely with.
The state already has methods in place to make sure cities build enough housing, but advocates have long complained they lack teeth. To begin with, every city has a certain amount of state-mandated housing it's required to plan for -- known as its Regional Housing Need Allocation, or "RHNA" number. Cities must create general plans and zoning rules that allow for that amount of housing to be built, but until recently, there was little punishment if jurisdictions fell out of compliance. Gov. Gavin Newsom has started to change that, suing the city of Huntington Beach for failing to set aside enough land for housing. In June, he laid out a plan to fine other noncompliant cities up to $600,000 a month.
But none of those measures force cities to approve individual housing developments. That's where the Housing Accountability Act comes in. Enacted in 1982 and strengthened since, it requires cities to abide by their own general plans and zoning rules. Until CaRLA came along, it was rarely used.
Now more rejected projects are ending up in court. Dublin Mayor David Haubert, whose city was sued by CaRLA last year, doesn't think that's good. Litigation is costly and risky and it makes the city look bad, he said.
"While I respect their right to sue cities," Haubert said, "as mayor, I would prefer that they would sit down with me and talk in person. I'm not sure why they didn't seek to do that."