California's state government is coming to the aid of an Anaheim-based nonprofit whose plan to open a group home for formerly homeless women was shot down by the city at the behest of NIMBY neighbors.
It's a case that tests the power of California housing officials to set limits on localities' ability to say no to new housing. Should the state prevail, Anaheim could have to permit far more housing than just group homes.
On Monday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta and the state's Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) filed an application to intervene in a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Grandma's House of Hope against Anaheim in Orange County Superior Court earlier this year. That lawsuit challenged the city's refusal to issue House of Hope a conditional use permit to establish a 15-person group home serving formerly homeless women with mental health disabilities.
"The support and assistance that transitional housing providers like Grandma's House of Hope deliver are essential in addressing California's homelessness crisis and the shortage of housing for people with disabilities," said HCD Director Gustavo Velasquez in a press release. "Cities and counties across the state will be held accountable for attempts to evade fair housing and anti-discrimination laws."
For close to two years now, House of Hope has been locked in a contentious battle with Anaheim city officials and neighborhood opponents over its proposed group home.
Its original plan was to host up to 21 women at an 8-bedroom house in a single-family neighborhood on West Street near Anaheim's downtown. They'd receive therapy and other services from seven House of Hope staff members, several of whom would be on-call 24/7 to respond to emergencies. The plan would be to move these women into permanent housing within 18 months.
It's something House of Hope has succeeded with at its other group homes, including some in Anaheim. The nonprofit reports a 65 percent success rate at placing program participants in permanent housing within 9 to 18 months and has partnered with the Orange County government on various programs over the years.
But their proposal for an additional Anaheim group home proved controversial with a vocal set of nearby residents. They argued their neighborhood was already "oversaturated" with group homes and that adding another one would threaten public safety, strain sewer infrastructure, and overtask emergency services.
At an August 2021 Planning Commission meeting, 36 residents showed up to argue against granting House of Hope the conditional use permit it needed for the group home.
Despite a recommendation from city staff to approve the group home, the commission voted unanimously against the nonprofit's application. Their findings stated that the house would threaten public health and safety.
A similar scene occurred at an October public hearing before the Anaheim City Council.
At the hearing, House of Hope founder Je'net Kreitner tried to allay fears that a new group home would become a burden on the neighborhood. She said that House of Hope had agreed to reduce the number of people staying at the home from 21 to 16. Far from just picking people up off the street, she stressed that residents would only be placed in the group home after extensive screening and consenting to psychiatric treatment.
During the hearing, Kreitner held up a phonebook-thick binder that contained House of Hope's contract with the Orange County Health authorities outlining its transitional housing program and "good neighbor" policy as evidence that hers wasn't a fly-by-night operation.
"Our case managers are dedicated to following this by the letter," Kreiter said at that meeting. Anaheim had a growing homeless population that needed to be addressed, she said, adding, "we are trying to do that for you."
This did little to mollify opponents at the city council hearing. They complained that the neighborhood was already oversaturated with "lucrative" businesses like House of Hope. Speakers expressed fears that the formerly homeless women staying at the nonprofit's group house might wander around the neighborhood at night, create traffic through excessive GrubHub orders, and put undue strain on water and sewer infrastructure.
Those arguments proved convincing for the city council, which also voted unanimously to reject House of Hope's application.
All out of administrative options, the group sued the city in January 2022.
In the background of House of Hope's struggle to open its shelter has been a slow-burning dispute between Anaheim and state housing officials about the city's general treatment of transitional housing.
Back in 2013, HCD told Anaheim that its permitting requirements for transitional housing violate a state law requiring local governments to treat transitional housing the same as residential housing in the same district. Since Anaheim doesn't require conditional use permits for single-family homes, the department said it couldn't require them for transitional housing within single-family homes.
The city committed to bringing its transitional housing regulations in line with state law as part of its 2014 Housing Element—a periodic report that cities must produce outlining how they'll meet state-established housing production goals.
But that never ended up happening. Indeed, while House of Hope's doomed permit application was winding through the approval process, the Anaheim Planning Commission endorsed piling even more regulations on transitional housing.
Over the past two years, HCD has also been warning Anaheim in technical assistance letters, phone calls, and in-person meetings that its treatment of House of Hope specifically was illegal and could provoke more serious state intervention.
Anaheim continued to blow off these warnings, however. At most, the city said it would commit to changing its transitional housing regulations as part of its 2023 Housing Element.
Its patience exhausted, HCD, along with Bonta, asked the court earlier this week to let it join House of Hope's lawsuit against Anaheim.
Its lengthy petition repeats complaints that Anaheim is violating state law designed to streamline the approval of transitional housing. By committing to and then failing to remove illegal regulations on transitional housing in its Housing Element, the city is also in violation of the state's Housing Element laws, argues the state. Their application also claims that by shooting down a group home for mentally disabled women specifically, Anaheim is violating state anti-discrimination and fair housing laws.
The state is asking the court to prevent Anaheim from requiring conditional use permits for the House of Hope project or similar projects.
It's also asking the court to declare the city's 2014 Housing Element "not substantially" compliant with state Housing Element law.
That could open the door to even more sweeping state remedies.
Cities without substantially compliant housing elements can lose access to some state funding. The state's "builder's remedy" also prevents cities without compliant housing elements from using their zoning codes to deny housing projects with a certain amount of below-market-rate housing.
If the court declares Anaheim's housing element out of compliance, a developer could theoretically build a project of unlimited density anywhere in the city.
California, for all its housing woes, has many laws on the books intended to boost housing production and put some outer limits on cities' ability to shoot down new development. Until recently, those laws have largely gone unenforced.
That's starting to change, as the fight over the House of Hope shelter illustrates.
Both HCD and the State Attorney General's office have created new units dedicated to enforcing state housing laws. Increasingly, they're using whatever tools those laws give them to override local regulations and get housing built.
In August, the two departments launched an unprecedented audit of NIMBY capital San Francisco's housing policies and practices with the explicit intent of uncovering violations of state housing law.
The message is clear: shooting down individual projects for specious reasons or keeping blatantly illegal regulations on the books isn't going to fly anymore.