AG says Pasadena ordinance violates California housing law

The city of Pasadena, home to the annual Rose Parade and Rose Bowl college football game, is violating a new California law designed to increase affordable housing, the state attorney general warned Tuesday.

It’s Attorney General Rob Bonta’s second such action after proponents of denser housing said more than a dozen communities across California had been hurrying to adopt restrictions before the law took effect Jan. 1. More than 150 cities opposed the law as it was being considered in the Legislature last year.

The law allows homeowners to build up to four residential units on a single-family lot, a measure that Bonta said is needed to address the most populous state’s chronic housing and homelessness problems by increasing supply and affordability.

Bonta warned cities to "take seriously their obligations under state housing laws" or "we will hold you accountable." Bonta’s staff said his office is evaluating similar ordinances elsewhere.

Bonta, a Democrat, in November created a new " housing strike force " within the state Department of Justice to look for violations.

Less than a month before the state law took effect, Pasadena, a Southern California city of roughly 140,000 people, passed an ordinance that among other restrictions allows officials to exempt eligible areas by declaring them "landmark districts."

But no such exemption exists under the law, Bonta said.

The ordinance "undermines SB 9 and denies residents the opportunity to create sorely needed additional housing, under the guise of protecting ‘landmark districts,’" Bonta said in a statement. "This is disappointing and, more importantly, violates state law."

Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo said the city’s efforts "have been progressive and responsive to the housing crisis and we remain committed to doing our part to help address the state’s housing issues."

Bonta’s letter arrived "without any prior conversation regarding the substance of our regulations and how they comply with the law," he said in a statement. The city’s interpretation "appears to differ" but officials will further review the law and Bonta’s letter, Gordo said.

Bonta last month issued a similar warning to the wealthy Silicon Valley town of Woodside after it declared that it was exempt because the entire town is habitat for endangered cougars. Hours later, town officials said they would accept applications for increasing housing after all.

While Bonta told Pasadena officials that there is no such thing as a "landmark districts" exemption under the state housing law, individual properties can be exempt if they are part of a landmark, historic property or historic district.

But Bonta said in a letter to Pasadena officials that those designations cannot be arbitrary and must be supported by substantial evidence.

He contended that Pasadena’s criteria, by contrast, are very broad and aren’t linked to historic resources, so they potentially would include large areas of the city.

City leaders also erred by adopting the restrictions as an "urgency ordinance," Bonta said. He said the city did not provide evidence that the state law would significantly harm public health or safety, let alone the required "substantial evidence of a significant, quantifiable, direct, and unavoidable impact."

He asked Pasadena to repeal or amend its ordinance to comply with the new state law within 30 days, without saying what might happen if it doesn’t.

The law’s author, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, last month praised Bonta’s efforts to push back against what she termed "interesting and creative ways to really work against supportive housing."

"These efforts really inhibit and undermine our ability to provide housing for Californians," she said during a forum hosted by the Sacramento Press Club. She said the goal is "to add gentle density in a way that maintains the quality of a neighborhood."