The San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation doubled down on a pledge it made in September to sue the city of Lafayette for not building enough housing, saying they will file a lawsuit next week in what they promise is just the first volley in a longer war against suburbs that fail to construct their share of new housing.
“Lafayette is the beginning,” said Brian Hanlon, a member of the federation and part of the legal effort. The pro-development group held a panel discussion yesterday at the Women’s Building on 18th and Guerrero to review how state law might favor their legal suit against the East Bay suburb and to call for more volunteers to join the suit.
“Thirty five years of wonky liberals trying to induce localities to build housing has been a complete failure, so why not just sue the suburbs?” said Hanlon, referring to a 33-year-old law that the group hopes to use to prod Lafayette into creating more housing.
The issue concerns a development that was approved by the Lafayette city council in August for 44 single-family homes, a steep reduction in density from the originally proposed 315 units of middle-income housing. The city said public dissatisfaction and other concerns pushed them to favor a “scaled-down alternative” that would see the 22-acre lot turned into a suburb and soccer field rather than a higher density apartment complex.
The Bay Area permitted just about half of the housing it needed from 2007 to 2014, though for low to moderate income levels the totals are worse, coming in at about 28 percent of the regional goal. Counties like Napa fared particularly badly, approving 15 percent of the very low income and 12 percent of the low income housing it should have.
The legal basis for the suit against the suburb comes from the 1982 Housing Accountability Act, a state law that prohibits cities from blocking higher density affordable housing without a specific finding that it threatens health and safety in an unfixable way — a tall order.
“I cannot imagine a housing project that would have a significant adverse impact,” said panelist Linda Klein, a land use attorney with the real estate law firm Cox, Castle & Nicholson. Klein said the novel application of the act would be useful “up to the city council period,” meaning she was unsure of its success once a city has chosen to go through with their version of the project as Lafayette has.
The law is typically used by developers to force city approval of a project when it’s been stalled by density concerns. But Hanlon and Sonja Traus, the founder of the renter’s federation, are approaching it from a tenant angle, gathering at least 28 plaintiffs (more were recruited after the meeting) who would have been eligible for the original 315-unit complex. This will give them legal standing to sue Lafayette for “removing” units they might have otherwise lived in.
Though the panelists were curious about the application of the law to the Lafayette development, David Grabill questioned the utility of lawsuits and said the Bay Area could not build its way out of the housing crisis.
“Suing is not going to get you much,” said Grabill, a public interest attorney who has been involved in pushing for affordable housing in Sonoma County for years. He said suits are useful when there’s “a strong movement, a renters movement, a low-income movement” behind them that pushes lawmakers long-term.
“Make it at least look like there’s a movement,” Grabill said.
“We are a movement!” said a crowd member.
“We’re on it,” said Hanlon, referring to the federation’s frequent appearances at city meetings.
Grabill did concede that the suburbs are “a big problem” that a suit might help fix, and Trauss — well known for her “build, build, build” stance — interjected when Grabill said increasing housing supply would not solve the crisis.
“I’m not saying don’t build,” Grabill clarified. “Build, but you gotta do some other things too.”
No one knows whether the suit will be successful. Klein said she recently invoked the Housing Accountability Act in Fremont to make the city cut fewer units from a project than it would have otherwise, but Trauss and Hanlon are hoping for a victory an order of magnitude greater.
For her part, Trauss said the effort to continue suing the suburbs is not contingent on the success of the Lafayette case. She has already created a new organization — the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund — and is looking for a staff attorney to lead future efforts around the Bay Area.
“What am I going to not do it?” Trauss said.
As for financing, Trauss said she would be fundraising but was thin on specifics. She mentioned “captains of industry” and “big employers” who would have a stake in creating housing for workers, and said she would seek funds from developers because they stand to gain from constructing housing in the suburbs.
“If they know that there’s a citizen organization out there, hopefully it will give developers some backbone.