Gavin Newsom’s housing lawsuit put 47 California cities on notice. Is yours on the list?

Encinitas is just the kind of place Gavin Newsom might want to sue.

A local voter-approved initiative from 2013 makes planning for affordable homes nearly impossible, preventing the wealthy city of 60,000 from complying with a state law that requires local governments to build more housing.

The city has already spent $3.5 million in the last few years fighting a pair of housing-related lawsuits. The bill could climb if Newsom follows through on a threat to hold local governments accountable to the state housing law.

“I don’t feel proud to be the mayor of a city that is in the midst of costing millions of taxpayer dollars,” said Catherine Blakespear, the city’s mayor. “I want to free up some of our planning ability to talk about other issues. This housing (issue) dominates everything that we talk about.”

Encinitas of San Diego County is one of 47 California cities under scrutiny by the Newsom administration for not complying with a state law that requires them to plan for the construction of affordable housing. Newsom’s administration recently sued Huntington Beach for not keeping up with its housing promises, alarming other local governments.

The roster of out-of-compliance cities includes fairly wealthy ones on the coast. It also has dozens of communities in the Central Valley, Sierra Nevada, Mojave Desert and eastern Los Angeles County that generally are known as affordable places to live in California.

Dos Palos in Merced County, for instance, is on the list of cities with inadequate housing plans. It has a population 5,000 and 27 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.

Its city manager said the city simply can’t afford to hire the kind of consultant who would draft a study showing that the city’s zoning complies with state law. He said the city’s budget totals about $3 million a year and hiring a consultant would be a tremendous burden because most of its spending goes toward essential services like public safety and utilities.

“I don’t know how we’re gonna come up with that, but we have to,” City Manager Darrell Fonseca said. “We are a very tiny city, and we have been building, we just don’t have a fancy binding on the housing element that shows that we’re in compliance.”

‘Neglect and denial’

For years, California cities have failed to build affordable housing units, with the vast majority not hitting production targets outlined in their city plans. Newsom in his campaign for governor pledged to speed up construction, aiming for the state to build 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.

In his State of the State Address on Tuesday, Newsom acknowledged “other factors beyond city planning that have limited our ability to provide housing.” While he doesn’t intend to sue all of the cities for their failures to meet their housing obligations, he vowed to hold them all accountable.

“I’m not going to preside over neglect and denial,” Newsom said. “These cities need to summon the political courage to build their fair share of housing.”

Newsom’s actions so far target communities over their planning documents, not over their actual performance in encouraging development.

Marin County, for example, has an exemption in affordable housing law that gives it extra time to plan for dense development. There are no cities from Marin County on the list of communities that are out of compliance with the planning law.

“The cities I represent have all been meeting their obligation to zone and plan for new housing,” said Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Democrat who represents the area stretching from Santa Rosa to San Rafael.

Cities are in trouble if their housing plans have not been approved by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. In his speech, Newsom explicitly called out Montebello in Los Angeles County, which hasn’t had department-approved housing plans since 1993.

“The ones working in good faith are probably not the ones we’re going to look at in terms of enforcement,” said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency. “It’s the ones that are not submitting anything and have not been working with us.”

‘Stomping and threatening Clovis’

Newsom’s speech filled many cities and lawmakers with uncertainty. Clovis, for example is among the cities violating state law. Yet Newsom praised the city in his speech for “trying” to address the problem.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, said the suburban Central Valley city of 110,000 has great schools, low crime and lots of reasonably-priced housing units. He was stunned to hear Newsom cite Clovis as a good example while simultaneously putting it on a “hit list” of potential legal targets.

“The last thing in the world that the governor needs to do is start stomping around and threatening Clovis. That demonstrates that he’s just out of touch. Before he contacts a lawyer, he needs to come and visit and pay attention to what Clovis is doing,” Patterson said.

The city appears unlikely to face a lawsuit since it is “working hard to complete those re-zonings and get back into compliance,” Heimerich said.

Units in the Sunnyhills Apartments in Clovis are shown near completion at Temperance and Bullard on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Officials from small, rural cities on the out-of-compliance list echoed Fonseca of Dos Palos in saying they haven’t updated their housing plans because they lack money and staff.

Wheatland, a city with 3,500 people in Yuba County is on the list. So is Atwater, another city in Merced County. It recently went through a two-year period in which it had six city managers.

“The city has been in financial turmoil. They just don’t have the expertise,” said Andy Krotik, a former Atwater city councilman and real estate agent.

Plumas County at the north end of the Sierra Nevada has an average of eight residents per square mile. The state wants it to support construction of 20 affordable housing units.

Randy Wilson, the county’s planning director, estimates that it’d take about $60,000 to hire a contractor to update the plan. He acknowledges the state-mandated goal is fairly low, but says the county has not moved with more urgency because of limited funds. It also hasn’t faced a serious penalty until now.

“With the recession and the tight budget, we just haven’t addressed it,” he said.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.