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When the Coastal Act Clashes with the State’s Housing Density Laws

No matter your politics or perspective on development in the state, one thing is beyond debate – California is facing a serious housing shortage crisis. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times warns that this shortage will have significant adverse effects on the state’s economy. Making matters worse is a dearth of affordable housing. Efforts by policymakers to deal with these shortfalls have resulted in mixed success. Most recently, Governor Brown’s proposal to streamline the approval of “as of right” housing projects that include some affordable units stalled last August.

The California Legislature, however, has come up with new tools to either incentivize or require a developer to intensify development and create affordable housing opportunities. An issue that sometimes comes up is how these tools of local government square with existing state statutes or regulations governing conservation or protection of sensitive lands, such as those regulated by the California Coastal Commission.

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No Density Bonus for this Coastal Project

In Kalnel Gardens, LLC v. City of Los Angeles, the court of appeal tackled this issue in the context of a relatively small project in the Venice area of Los Angeles. The developer applied to the City to tear down a two-story, three-unit apartment building and replace it with five duplexes and five single-family homes for a total of 15 residential units. The project was granted additional density and height limits beyond what was allowed on the site because two of the units would have been designated as affordable units.

The City’s Zoning Administrator granted these development incentives based on the following statutes:

  • Housing Accountability Act. This act is sometimes referred to as the state’s “anti-NIMBY law.” The Housing Accountability Act limits the ability of local governments to reject or make infeasible housing development projects based on their density without a thorough analysis of the “economic, social, and environmental effects of the action,” including the adoption of express findings required by the statute.
  • Density Bonus Act. This act addresses the shortage of affordable housing in California by requiring local governments to award a developer certain development concessions and a density bonus that allows an increase in density above what the zoning ordinance allows if the developer agrees to set aside a certain percentage of the units in a housing development for low or very low income residents.
  • Mello Act. This act establishes minimum requirements for affordable housing within the coastal zone by requiring, first, the construction of replacement low income housing when existing affordable housing is demolished and, second, new affordable housing units as part of new developments, either at the site of the new development or somewhere else.

A group of neighbors administratively appealed the project, alleging that it violated the Coastal Act because the project’s height, density, setbacks, and other visual and physical characteristics were inconsistent with the existing neighborhood. The West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission found that the project did not conform to the Coastal Act on that basis, and on appeal to the City Council by the developer, the City Council agreed with the Commission.

The developer sued the City, arguing that the City had violated the housing density statutes identified above by reducing the size of the Project and denying the incentives sought under the Density Bonus Act. The question for the court, then, was whether the Coastal Act takes precedence over the “density bonus” allowances sought by the developer.

The court’s answer? The Coastal Act does supersede a local government’s obligations under these housing density laws. The court reached this conclusion by assuming that it must apply the law in a manner that is “most protective of coastal resources,” essentially putting the housing density statutes in the backseat. In sum, in a clash between the Coastal Act and the state’s housing density statutes, the Coastal Act will win.

Although the court here looked to specific language in the Coastal Act and the housing density laws to reach this conclusion, this decision suggests that other statutes similarly protective of sensitive lands may be viewed as superseding other state law mandates that local government incentivize affordable housing projects in order to meet the state’s housing crunch. Bottom line: if you face that balancing act as a developer, beware.