The Los Angeles Superior Court’s decision in the case, Yes In My Back Yard, Sonja Trauss, and Janet Jha v. City of Los Angeles, provides important guidance to developers and local agencies on how to process housing development projects located on sites where the density permitted by the General Plan (or applicable specific or community plans) is greater than the density allowed under the zoning code.
The court held that the developers are entitled to the highest available density, even when the zoning density is less than the density allowed by the General Plan or other plans. This is true even where the applicable plans specify a range of permissible densities.
JMBM Attorneys Matthew D. Hinks, Daniel F. Freedman, and Julia Consoli-Tiensvold successfully argued the case on behalf of a multi-family housing developer. The case resulted in the court granting of a writ of mandate against the City of Los Angeles under the Housing Accountability Act.
On May 19, 2020, JMBM client Janet Jha submitted an application to the City of Los Angeles seeking to build a 67-unit, multi-family density bonus development on a site abutting Ventura Boulevard in the Woodland Hills community of the San Fernando Valley. The project site is zoned for single-family uses, but the City’s community plan designates the site for commercial and multi-family uses.
On June 8, 2020, the City rejected Jha’s application on the basis that the project includes more housing units than the site’s single-family zoning permits, and insisted that a rezoning of the site was required to approve a multi-family development. Over the next several months, the City demanded that Jha either reduce the density of the project to comply with the residential single-family zoning, or seek rezoning – even though the project density complied with the Community Plan’s “Limited Commercial” designation for the site.
The City specifically rejected JMBM’s arguments that the site’s zoning was inconsistent with the Community Plan because a generic footnote in the Community Plan purported to include within the Limited Commercial designation the range of densities permitted in all less intensive zones.
After the City Council denied Jha’s appeal on November 24, 2021, JMBM and YIMBY Law filed a joint petition for writ of mandate arguing that the City erred in refusing to process the development application, and that it violated the Housing Accountability Act by requiring a rezoning.
Judge James C. Chalfant held that the City of Los Angeles’ refusal to process the development application was a violation of the state’s Housing Accountability Act. JMBM and YIMBY Law sought and obtained a writ of mandate directing the City to deem Jha’s project application complete, and further directing the City to comply with the Housing Accountability Act within 60 days.
The court’s holding could have significant implications for future projects in the City, particularly for sites where the property’s designation under the Community Plan is inconsistent with its zoning. The court held that the Housing Accountability Act requires that the City permit projects to move forward if they comply with the density provided in the Community Plan, without rezoning, and that the City may only apply objective zoning standards that facilitate the Community Plan’s allowed density. Both Jha and YIMBY Law also recovered their attorneys fees from the City.
This important decision appears to be the first instance in which a court has held, against the objections of the City of Los Angeles, that the City cannot refuse to process a housing project application if it is consistent with the General Plan, even if it is inconsistent with the density permitted by the zoning.
In another case, Snowball West Investments, L.P. v. City of Los Angeles, the court reached a different conclusion, and upheld the City’s demand that the applicant obtain zone change. This case is now on appeal to the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal.
For more information about how to invoke the Housing Accountability Act, among other state housing laws, to advance development over City objections, contact JMBM’s Government, Land Use, Environment & Energy Group.
About the Author
Daniel F. Freedman is a land use and environmental attorney who has more than a decade of experience assisting and advising on residential, industrial, commercial and mixed-use developments, and his practice emphasizes municipal and land use law. He represents clients on related civil litigation matters in both state and federal courts, and is an experienced lobbyist on local, state, and federal matters. Contact Daniel at DFreedman@jmbm.com or 310.785.5391.