In YIMBY v. City of Los Angeles (Super. Ct. L.A. County, 2022, No. 21STCP03883), a Los Angeles County trial court decided a number of issues under California housing laws. Though the trial court decision carries neither precedential nor persuasive value, it may portend the direction in which courts will interpret these relatively new laws. In particular, the case held that the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) (Gov. Code, § 65589.5) requires a City to permit housing development at the density allowed under its general plan regardless of whether the general plan is consistent with the applicable zoning. It also held that an SB 330 preliminary application is considered “submitted” once the required information is provided, even if the units proposed are found to exceed permitted density, and the application does not contain information required by local ordinance beyond the statutory categories.

Janet Jha (Jha) proposed a housing development project (Project) in the City of Los Angeles (City). Jha and the City disagreed over the allowed density on the site, due to different readings of the HAA. In part because of the disagreement, the City rejected multiple preliminary applications under SB 330 as well as development applications that Jha submitted for the Project. Jha, joined by the pro-housing Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) organization and its director Sonja Trauss (Petitioners), filed suit. The petition alleged the City’s conduct contravened SB 330, and the HAA. They also raised arguments under the Permit Streamlining Act, prevailing in part, though those issues are not addressed further in this summary.

SB 330

A preliminary application submitted under SB 330 freezes most applicable development standards at the time of its submittal, provided that the preliminary application includes 17 statutorily required pieces of information. (Gov Code, §§ 65589.5(o), 65941.1(a).) The City had rejected the preliminary applications here in part because it found that the density proposed was not permitted on the site, disagreeing with Jha’s interpretation of the HAA, and also because the municipal code required an Affordable Housing Referral Form (AHRF), which Jha had not provided. Petitioners claimed that the City’s refusal to accept submission of the preliminary applications was contrary to SB 330.

The Court agreed with Petitioners. It held that even if the units proposed were not allowed, the law only requires a preliminary application to identify the number of units “proposed” and the number of bonus units “requested.” Further, the law requires only the 17 pieces of information for submission of a preliminary application, and an AHRF is not among them. As such, Jha did not need to complete an AHRF or establish the legal feasibility of the proposed density to validly submit a preliminary application under SB 330, which the City had a ministerial duty to accept.

HAA

The HAA mandates that a housing development project is consistent with applicable zoning standards and criteria if it is “consistent with the objective general plan standards and criteria but the zoning for the project site is inconsistent with the general plan.” (Gov. Code, § 65589.5(j)(4).) If the agency determines the project is inconsistent with objective zoning standards it can inform the applicant and enforce them, except that they “shall be applied to facilitate and accommodate development at the density allowed on the site by the general plan.” (Ibid.)

Here, the general plan allowed for a greater maximum density than the zoning. Petitioners argued that this provision allowed for development at the general plan’s maximum density under this HAA provision. The City responded that the provision only applies if there is an inconsistency between the zoning and general plan, and that there was not here. The Court agreed with Petitioners, finding that the language of the statute mandates that maximum density under the general plan is the applicable standard, regardless of whether the zoning is consistent or inconsistent with the general plan, especially given the HAA’s directive that it be interpreted “to afford the fullest possible weight to the approval and provision of housing.” The Court also found its interpretation to be supported by both the legislative history of the HAA as well as other pertinent housing statutes such as SB 35 and the Density Bonus Law.

The Court’s interpretation contradicts another Los Angeles trial court decision, Snowball West Investments LP v. City of Los Angeles (Super. Ct. L.A. County, 2021, 20STCP0071) (Snowball), which found that the zoning density did apply to a housing project absent an inconsistency with the general plan. Snowball is currently on appeal and fully briefed.

In YIMBY, the Court also held that the denial was improper because the zoning was in fact inconsistent with the general plan. Specifically, the zoning of the site expressly prohibited commercial and multifamily housing – both uses consistent with the Limited Commercial general plan designation. The City maintained that this was not an inconsistency because the zoning neither prohibited what the general plan commanded nor commanded what the general plan prohibited, and also because the zoning was compatible with the general plan’s overarching objectives and policies – a view the Court described as a hierarchy theory. But the Court found that the City was collaterally estopped from defending such a view, having had this issue adversely decided against it in an unpublished opinion from 1991. And even if they were not estopped from defending the view, the Court found the unpublished opinion’s reasoning persuasive. Thus, the Court agreed that allowing the City to prohibit entire categories of land use specifically permitted by the general plan effectively allowed the City to impermissibly amend its general plan through inconsistent zoning ordinances. As such, the Court held that even under the City’s interpretation of the HAA, the zoning and general plan designation were in fact inconsistent.