Court issues major builder’s remedy ruling on La Cañada Flintridge 

The ruling will have serious implications for California cities fighting the legal provision

California Association of Realtors' Jennifer Branchini
California Association of Realtors' Jennifer Branchini (California Association of Realtors, City of La Cañada Flintridge, Getty)

In a ruling that’s likely to reverberate around California, a Los Angeles County judge ruled this week that La Cañada Flintridge — a wealthy L.A. County city that’s been embroiled for months in an escalating dispute over the development provision known as builder’s remedy — did in fact miss a critical deadline for reaching state compliance on its housing element, implying the city is eligible for builder’s remedy projects. 

The ruling carries added significance because of its implications for other builder’s remedy battles unfolding around the state. Over the past several months, as developers have sought to use the provision to build projects that don’t conform to local zoning, La Cañada Flintridge and other development-averse cities have been fighting back hard, often by relying on arguments that seek to sidestep state housing authority. 

In many cases, instead of deferring to the California Department of Housing and Community Development on housing element compliance, which determines whether or not cities are subject to builder’s remedy and other penalties, the cities have asserted they could “self-certify” their own housing elements; the court’s ruling undercuts those arguments, and in turn provides perhaps the most significant legal boost to date for builder’s remedy since the controversial provision emerged last fall as a major force in California housing development. 

“This is a major win for housing,” Jennifer Branchini, president of the California Association of Realtors, said in a statement. “For far too long, certain cities and counties have treated compliance with state housing laws as optional. This decision sends a clear message: complying with these laws is not optional.” 

The suit was brought by Californians for Homeownership, a nonprofit affiliated with the state realtor group that frequently files pro-housing lawsuits against cities. 

“It was expected, but it was still a very big win for us,” added Matt Gelfand, a lawyer with the nonprofit who brought the suit.

La Cañada Flintridge officials said they could not comment on the specifics of the case. 

The ruling, nevertheless, was nuanced. While the judge rejected the city’s request to dismiss the case, he also denied one motion from Californians for Homeownership that sought an immediate ruling to discredit the city’s housing element. Instead of issuing an immediate ruling, the judge sent that issue to a trial that could take place later this summer.   

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The judge also declined to issue an explicit declaration that builder’s remedy applies in the city, because he determined that Californians for Homeownership, without a pending project, does not have that legal standing, although he indicated that a developer with a pending project would be likely to win such a declaration.   

On another claim brought by Californians for Homeownership, however, the judge ruled immediately in the group’s favor, determining that the city’s housing element cannot be declared in substantial compliance — the legal standard that determines eligibility for builder’s remedy and other penalties — because La Cañada Flintridgehad not completed its required rezoning after missing an earlier state deadline for compliance. 

That order effectively upheld the state’s authority and rejected the city’s self certification argument while strongly implying builder’s remedy does in fact apply; a final court judgment will also impose penalties on the city that include a timely rezoning.  

“Our primary goal was to pave the way for builder’s remedy to take place in this city until they get their act together,” said Gelfand, “and now that has been accomplished.” 

The Tuesday afternoon ruling comes amid a monthslong saga in the town over builder’s remedy and an even longer saga over one particular property, where a development team is now seeking to use the penalty to build a five-story mixed-use project that would include 80 residential units, around 8,000 square feet of office space and a 12-room hotel. As the dispute has escalated state officials have also ramped up warnings to the city hinting at their own potential legal action.   

After the court ruling Alexandra Hack, one of the partners on that project, said she was ecstatic, and that her team was “lining up our ducks in a row” for their own potential legal action against the city. 

“I think the biggest thing is there is no uncertainty now. The court has ruled that self certification does not grant any substantial compliance — that is not an acceptable means of achieving a complaint housing element. It’s just simply not.” 

Read more

Cedar Street Partners' Alexandra Hack and La Cañada Flintridge mayor Keith Eich (Getty, LinkedIn, City of La Cañada Flintridge)
Los Angeles
La Cañada Flintridge doubles down on builder’s remedy fight   
California Department of Housing & Community Development's Gustavo Velasques (HCD, City of La Cañada Flintridge, Getty)
Los Angeles
HCD to La Cañada Flintridge: You’re violating state law on builder’s remedy 
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