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California’s New Housing Accountability Unit Strengthens Housing Laws


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California’s New Housing Accountability Unit Strengthens Housing Laws

Residential subdivision. The city of Baldwin Park in Los Angeles County is among the jurisdictions that have recently adopted a housing element that the California Department of Housing and Community Development has found to comply with state housing law.

Since 2017, California has significantly changed its housing laws to address the state’s ongoing affordability crisis. Many of these changes promote housing production by streamlining approval processes and encouraging the construction of accessory dwelling units, among other measures. The state also strengthened its fair housing regulations by requiring local governments to affirmatively further fair housing. Much of the new legislation limits the authority of cities and counties to adopt land use regulations that restrict residential development. Included in this legislation is the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, which declared a statewide housing emergency that is still in effect. The act prohibits localities from enacting regulations that would reduce allowable densities for residential development in urbanized areas or limit the number of building permits they issue. State funding authorized in the 2021–22 state budget allowed the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to hire staff to form the Housing Accountability Unit (HAU), a team dedicated to ensuring local compliance with state housing laws through technical assistance and enforcement action. HAU’s purview includes permitting process streamlining, by-right permitting provisions, density bonuses, accessory dwelling units, and inclusionary rental housing requirements.

Since 1969, California has required that all cities and counties create plans to meet their housing needs through its regional housing needs allocation process. HCD determines the number of housing units, specified by affordability levels, that each state region needs. Each regional government planning body, known as a council of governments, allocates the regional housing need among its constituent jurisdictions; local governments must update their housing elements to address their allocated housing need. Upon HCD certification, jurisdictions adopt the housing elements as part of their general plans and report annually on progress toward meeting their housing need. Jurisdictions must have a certified housing element to be eligible for certain grant funding; not having a certified element can endanger local land use decisionmaking authority (such as through the “builder’s remedy” authorized by the state’s Housing Accountability Act) and expose the jurisdiction to lawsuits.

However, neither new housing legislation nor a certified housing element guarantees that local land use decisions advance state housing goals. To help ensure that localities comply with the law, the state legislature granted HCD enforcement powers in 2017. Under those powers, HCD, through HAU, can find that a jurisdiction’s element does not comply with state requirements and report violations to the state’s attorney general, who may then seek enforcement through a letter or court proceedings. In 2021, new legislation further enhanced this enforcement power by authorizing the attorney general to act independently on violations of certain housing laws and HCD to hire outside counsel if the attorney general declines to act. HCD’s enforcement power through HAU extends to laws on affirmatively furthering fair housing, process streamlining, permanent supportive housing streamlining, and homelessness navigation center streamlining, among others.

HAU can initiate a review of a local policy or decision based on information contained in a locality’s housing element or annual progress report, a stakeholder request, or a news article. Once it initiates a review, HAU confers with the local government to better understand the issue and, after further examination, requests additional information, describes how state policy applies to a particular local policy or project, or requests corrective action. Jurisdictions can also initiate their own requests for technical assistance. If the local government remains in noncompliance, HCD may decertify the jurisdiction’s housing element. Alternatively, HAU may refer the case to the state’s attorney general, who must offer two meetings with the jurisdiction to resolve the issue before initiating court action.

HCD reports HAU enforcement actions on the Housing Accountability Dashboard, which is updated weekly. Between January 1, 2020, when HAU was launched, and September 4, 2023, localities approved 5,554 housing units — including 1,483 affordable units — after HAU either provided them with technical assistance or took enforcement action against them. HAU has sent 288 accountability letters (letters of support, letters of technical assistance, and notices of violation), provided technical assistance in 293 cases, and closed 673 cases.

Click here to access the Housing Crisis Act and information about how it addresses regulatory barriers. Find more plans, regulations, and research that state and local governments can use to reduce impediments to affordable housing at HUD USER’s Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse.

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