Housing group sues South Pasadena and Irvine to protect right to public access to public records about housing policy.

LOS ANGELES, April 12, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Californians for Homeownership, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (C.A.R.) that aims to address California’s housing crisis through impact litigation, today announced that it has filed lawsuits against two Southern California cities under California’s Public Records Act. The lawsuits seek records about local housing policy after the organization’s requests for records were denied by the cities of South Pasadena and Irvine.

“Public transparency is critically important in all areas of public decision-making, but especially in the development of sound housing policy,” said C.A.R. President Otto Catrina. “California is in the midst of a housing crisis of historic proportions, and it has never been more important that the public understand how their cities and counties are making decisions that impact access to housing for families at all income levels. These lawsuits will help ensure public access to this important information.” 

The lawsuit against South Pasadena relates to its development of its “housing element,” a state-mandated plan for addressing housing needs within the city. Every housing element is required to identify sites where housing is likely to be developed over the next eight years. But South Pasadena has received widespread criticism for its draft list of sites, which includes sites unlikely to ever be redeveloped with housing. 

Californians for Homeownership began investigating the development of the city’s housing element in 2020 and sent the city several public records requests as part of that investigation. The city produced some responsive records, but withheld most of them, claiming that the public interest is best served by keeping the city’s internal process for developing its housing element secret. These records are vitally important to allow residents, nonprofit organizations, and the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to assess the city’s sites list with the benefit of all the same information that the city has about the sites it has listed.

The organization is currently considering another lawsuit against the City of South Pasadena over its failure to adopt its housing element by the state-mandated deadline of October 2021.

The lawsuit against Irvine relates to the city’s policies governing accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. ADUs, often called “in-law units” or “granny flats,” are additional units usually built alongside single-family homes, within existing residential neighborhoods. Under state laws passed over the last few years, nearly every homeowner in California has the right to develop an ADU alongside their main home. Despite being broadly popular with homeowners, these ADU laws have faced opposition from some local government officials, including in Irvine.

The city originally planned to pass a local ordinance that would have limited ADUs in defiance of state law but backed down after Californians for Homeownership threatened litigation and HCD told the city that its proposed ordinance was invalid. Without a local ordinance, Irvine is required to apply permissive state law standards for ADUs. 

“Instead, we learned that the city’s staff had developed a secret internal memo that they were using to apply stricter, illegal standards to ADUs,” said Matthew Gelfand, the in-house litigator for the nonprofit. In response to a public records request, the city released the memo itself, but withheld documents about its development and whether it was authorized by the city’s policymakers.

Both cases involve records that were improperly withheld by cities under the deliberative process privilege, which applies in limited cases where a city can prove that the harms of disclosing a document outweigh the public interest in reviewing it. To withhold documents for this reason, cities must provide a detailed explanation of the harms that would come from disclosing them. “We gave both of these cities multiple opportunities to explain the basis for withholding these documents, but they refused,” said Gelfand. “The truth is that the public has a very compelling interest in seeing these documents, and the cities have no valid reason to withhold them.”

The lawsuits are Californians for Homeownership v. City of South Pasadena, Los Angeles County Superior Court Case No. 22STCP01161, and Californians for Homeownership v. City of Irvine, Orange County Superior Court Case No. 30-2022-01253030-CU-WM-CJC. Copies of the filings are available at caforhomes.org/pralawsuits.

Californians for Homeownership is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization sponsored by the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® devoted to using legal tools to address California’s housing crisis. For too long, California’s cities have treated compliance with state and federal housing law as optional. The organization seeks to change that attitude by proactively enforcing the law, on behalf of the important public interest in having additional housing available to families at all income levels. Californians for Homeownership was established by the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (C.A.R.), and it receives financial support from C.A.R. and private donors. To make a tax-deductible charitable contribution today, visit caforhomes.org.

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Housing group sues South Pasadena and Irvine to protect right to public access to public records about housing policy. WeeklyReviewer

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