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Bonta creates new ‘strike force’ to enforce state homebuilding laws

Cities, counties and landlords that flaunt the California’s housing laws may get hauled into court under new enforcement efforts launched in Sacramento in recent weeks.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Wednesday, Nov. 3., the creation of a new Housing Strike Force made up of a dozen lawyers from several state agencies who will use new powers to initiate enforcement and crack down on cities and counties failing to build their fair share of new homes.

The new strike force also will enforce tenants’ and homeowners’ rights by taking action against landlords or mortgage servicers that engage in a pattern or practice of violating state laws.

Bonta’s action comes about two weeks after the state Department of Housing and Community Development announced the creation of a new Housing Accountability Unit to ensure local leaders fulfill their legal responsibility to plan, zone for, and permit their share of the state’s housing needs.

For years, Bonta said, cities and counties have ignored state mandates to plan for and permit new homes to ensure there’s adequate housing for residents at all income levels. That resulted a severe housing shortage and “an affordability crisis of epic proportions.” Bonta noted the state is home to an estimated 150,000 Californians who are sleeping in homeless shelters, in cars or tent cities that populate parks and streets across the state.

“That’s changing,” Bonta said during the press conference Wednesday. “If you follow the law and fulfill your obligation to build your fair share of housing, we won’t have any problem with (you).” If not, he said, “There will be consequences.”

Bonta also plans to use the new strike force to address decades of systemic racism in housing practices that led to disproportionate homeownership rates and a disproportionate number of minorities who are cost burdened.

Bonta said the new strike force won’t get involved in individual landlord-tenant disputes, but rather will focus on practices that deprive tenants of their rights.

“If there’s a landlord, for example, that has multiple units and is rent gouging or is doing mass unjust evictions, that would be a place where we could get involved to enforce the laws of the State of California and make sure that all those who are being hurt by it are not,” he said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom named Bonta as state attorney in March after he picked former Attorney General Xavier Becerra to fill Vice President Kamala Harris’ seat in the U.S. Senate.

The pattern of using the California Justice Department to enforce state housing laws dates back at least to the 2008-12 housing crash when Harris joined other state attorneys general in negotiating a $25 billion court settlement with five leading mortgage providers to help those who lost their homes to foreclosure. Harris later championed the creation of the California Homeowners Bill of Rights to extend foreclosure protections to mortgage borrowers.

In 2019, Becerra and Newsom used new powers to enforce the state’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment law by suing the city of Huntington Beach for failing to adequately plan for low-income housing. That lawsuit, filed under a 2017 law authorizing the state to sue cities that fail to adopt adequate housing plans, was settled in early 2020 after Huntington Beach leaders acknowledged the lawsuit cost the city millions of dollars in state grants.

In recent years, the state Legislature also enacted new provisions to empower the attorney general’s office to enforce the state’s Housing Accountability act, including Assembly Bill 215, which gives the Justice Department the authority to act on its own authority in enforcing housing laws.

Bonta, the first Filipino American to head the state Justice Department, also announced the new housing strike force will convene a series of tenant roundtables across the state to help guide the task force’s actions.

Bonta’s office also is creating a new online housing portal to serve as a repository for the strike force’s priorities and work. The new strike force also will issue guidance letters to local governments on state housing laws, defend state housing and tenant protection laws from legal challenges and will advocate  for the an individual’s right to housing.

In response to a question, Bonta said he supports enactment of a right to housing that could result in lawsuits or sanctions against cities and counties accused of failing to meet local housing needs.

The new strike force also will work with a new Housing Accountability Unit, unveiled in mid-October.

Authorized under this year’s state budget, the unit will consist of 25 staff members to help local governments draft “housing element” plans and take enforcement steps to bring municipalities into compliance with state housing legislation in cases of persistent non-compliance, state housing officials said.

Sen. Scott Wiener, the San Francisco Democrat who chairs the state Senate housing committee, told reporters at Wednesday’s press conference that while the state has passed a number of good housing laws in recent years, they were “dead letters” because cities were simply ignoring them.

“We see all over the state some cities – not all – try to exempt themselves from state law because over the years there has not been nearly enough enforcement,” Wiener said. “They know nobody’s going to sue them. Well, now that’s changing. … The attorney general has been clear and the legislature has been clear that when we pass a law to allow for more housing, we mean it.”

Source: Orange County Register

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