San Mateo – 4 W. Santa Inez
In 2017, a modest housing project was proposed for 4 West Santa Inez Avenue in the city of San Mateo that would add 10 units to the Bay Area’s already scarce housing supply. On February 5, 2018, San Mateo City Council voted to deny the development, despite the fact that had been found compliant with all zoning and general plan standards by both staff and the Planning Commission. In their search for a reason to justify their denial, the City Council turned to San Mateo’s Multi-family Design Guidelines. These guidelines included a “design objective” to:
Avoid changes in building height greater than one story from adjacent structures. If changes are greater, stepback upper floors to ease the transition.
The City Council denied the project by concluding that it failed to comply with this standard, contrary to the conclusions of its own staff and Planning Commission.
The HAA puts limits on cities’ powers to deny projects that comply with all “applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards and criteria, including design review standards . . . .” The HAA does not allow for projects to be disapproved based on non-compliance with non-objective standards. Cities can condition approvals to ensure compliance, as long as those conditions do not reduce the overall density of the proposed development.
So we were left with a two-part question for the court to decide. First: is the design objective cited above an “applicable, objective” standard under the HAA? And if so: did the city have to demonstrate that the development did in fact violate this standard?
We don’t think this type of rule can be considered an objective standard. It is described as a ‘design objective,’ not a rule, and does not set a quantifiable rule, other than to “avoid changes” and “stepback upper floors” (by how much?). The reason that the HAA restricts this type of regulation is that it can too easily be used as a pretext to justify the denial housing developments. Objective standards are written and can be followed easily. Subjective standards, on the other hand, are subject to interpretation in their application. If cities are allowed to use these standards to disapprove of housing, they can easily veto developments by reinterpreting the standard at the city council. If the city truly cared so much about a smooth transition between buildings, it could have conditioned approval on some sort of stepback requirement to ensure their vision of compliance with this standard Instead, City Council chose instead to deny the project.
CaRLA filed this lawsuit because the implementation of standards like this one are a potential loophole for HAA compliance. Many cities have some sort of design guidelines such as these that encourage—but do not require—certain development styles. If city councils around the state are allowed to reinterpret these subjective rules to justify denials of projects, they will be able to effectively avoid compliance with the HAA entirely.
In our San Mateo lawsuit, we encountered a trial court judge who somehow disagrees with this statement. He ruled that the Housing Accountability Act is unconstitutional as applied to charter cities because it was too big of an intrusion into local control of housing approvals. We couldn’t let the courts undermine the state’s ability to limit local control, so we appealed the ruling. Recognizing the importance of this issue, and the needed to defend the state’s power to address the housing crisis. The state Attorney General intervened on our side of the appeal to defend the Housing Accountability Act and argued along side our outside counsel, Dan Gollub, of Holland & Knight.
How It Ended: We won and we won big!
In a unanimous appellate decision, the Court found San Mateo’s arguments unpersuasive and ordered them to vacate the denial and reconsider the project. They determined that San Mateo’s Multifamily Guideline setback requirement was indeed not objective. The court also went on to affirm the constitutionality of the Housing Accountability Act and declare, “The HAA is today strong medicine precisely because the Legislature has diagnosed a sick patient.”
Read our blog post announcing our victory.
On February 7, 2022, after four years and over $1 million dollars of tax payer money spent on attorney fees and in staff time, the City of San Mateo finally approved the project!