Suing Bay Area suburbs to provide denser housing

Changed plans for a new development in Lafayette, California have housing advocates looking to sue the suburb:

The California Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund has launched the website Sue the Suburbs to bring attention to the situation in Lafayette. The site is also set up to find people who could have rented one of the 315 apartments from the original housing plan, had it been approved. If the group can successfully find plaintiffs, this could be the opening salvo for potential legal action against other Bay Area cities to force them to kick in to help house the region’s explosive population growth…

Lafayette is a “semi-rural” town looking to stay that way. It actually lost 15 residents between 2000 and 2010. During that period, the number of renter-occupied housing units dropped significantly from 2,128 to 1,186 units. Meanwhile, Lafayette’s white population also dropped, from 86.8 percent to 84.7 percent, while its Latino population rose from 4 percent to 5.8 percent. The black population was mostly static at less than 1 percent over the 10-year period.

In 2013, the city outlined a number of reasons for its opposition to the apartments based on its general plan for land use. One of those: “The character and pattern of the proposed development is unprecedented in Lafayette and not compatible with the residential neighborhoods in the vicinity of the project, which are characterized by one-and-two story residences fronting on a network of residential streets.”…

Those amenities will fulfill Lafayette’s needs, but they leave the Bay and San Francisco hanging. The Association of Bay Area Governments set goals for new housing production for each municipality in the region, called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, to accomodate population growth. Lafayette built just 65 percent of its goal between 2007 and 2014. Actually, none of the Bay Area counties are pulling their weight in the housing plan.

This highlights how affordable housing is an issue for all of metropolitan regions to address. Many wealthier areas, whether neighborhoods in large cities or suburban communities, are unlikely to promote affordable housing on their own. Even when studies suggest affordable housing won’t lower property values, these communities are worried about their quality of life – which also can be seen as code for not wanting certain racial/ethnic groups or poorer residents to move in.

Yet, most regions do not have effective mechanisms for compelling metropolitan wide action. Lawsuits are one route to go with a long history: see the Gautreaux case in Chicago or the Mount Laurel case in New Jersey as notable examples. Other options including combining city and county governments and developing metropolitan wide bodies with the ability to enforce regulations. None of these routes are particularly easy as many residents of wealthier areas did so in order to retain local control.

And if all the Bay Area counties are behind in promoting affordable housing, perhaps this lawsuit is only the beginning…

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