Cal. Renters Legal Advocacy & Educ. Fund v. City of San Mateo

Decision Date10 September 2021
Docket NumberA159320, A159658
Citation68 Cal.App.5th 820,283 Cal.Rptr.3d 877
Parties CALIFORNIA RENTERS LEGAL ADVOCACY AND EDUCATION FUND et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. CITY OF SAN MATEO et al., Defendants and Respondents; Tony Mehmet Gundogdu et al., Real Parties in Interest; Rob Bonta, as Attorney General, etc., Intervener and Respondent.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Counsel for Appellants: Holland & Knight, Jennifer L. Hernandez, Daniel R. Golub, and Emily M. Lieban, San Francisco

Counsel for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Appellants: Miller Starr Regalia, Bryan W. Wenter ; Paul B. Campos for Building Industry Association – Bay Area, San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, Bay Area Council, and Housing Action Coalition

Counsel for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Appellants: Californians for Homeownership: Matthew Gelfand ; California Association of Realtors®: June Babiracki Barlow, Los Angeles

Counsel for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Appellants: Reed Smith, Raymond A. Cardozo, San Francisco, and Kathryn M. Bayes, Los Angeles, for Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco

Counsel for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Appellants: Christopher S. Elmendorf, Michelle Wilde Anderson, Anika Singh Lemar, and Dave Owen for Law Professors

Counsel for Respondents: Goldfarb & Lipman, Dolores Bastian Dalton, Barbara E. Kautz, James T. Diamond, Jr., Oakland, and Rye P. Murphy; Shawn Mason, City Attorney

Counsel for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Respondents: Rural County Representatives of California, Arthur J. Wylene; California State Association of Counties, Jennifer B. Henning

Counsel for Amicus Curiae on behalf of Respondents: Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, Andrew L. Jared, and Matthew T. Summers, Pasadena, for League of California Cities

Counsel for Intervener: Xavier Becerra and Rob Bonta, Attorneys General; Thomas S. Patterson and Daniel A. Olivas, Senior Assistant Attorneys General; Mark R. Beckington and Christina Bull Arndt, Supervising Deputy Attorneys General; and Jonathan M. Eisenberg and David Pai, Deputy Attorneys General


"California has a housing supply and affordability crisis of historic proportions." ( Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (a)(2)(A).)1 This "despite the fact that, for decades, the Legislature has enacted numerous statutes intended to significantly increase the approval, development, and affordability of housing for all income levels." ( § 65589.5, subd. (a)(2)(J).) Among these statutes is the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) ( Gov. Code, § 65589.5 ), enacted in 1982 with the goal of "meaningfully and effectively curbing the capability of local governments to deny, reduce the density for, or render infeasible housing development projects." ( § 65589.5, subd. (a)(2)(K).) In this, the HAA has historically failed. (Ibid .)

These were the findings of the Legislature in 2017, when it amended the HAA to strengthen the statute. (Stats. 2017, ch. 378, § 1.5.) In relevant part, the HAA restricts the ability of local governments to deny an application to build housing if the proposed project complies with general plan, zoning, and design review standards that are "objective." ( § 65589.5, subd. (j)(1).) A 2017 amendment adds teeth to this restriction by defining what it means to comply with such standards: a housing development project is deemed to comply if "substantial evidence ... would allow a reasonable person to conclude" that it does. ( § 65589.5, subd. (f)(4) ( subdivision (f)(4) ).) This case raises questions about how to apply the HAA as amended and whether the statute, especially subdivision (f)(4), violates the California Constitution.

After the City of San Mateo (the City) denied an application to build a ten-unit apartment building, petitioners California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, Victoria Fierce, and John Moon (collectively, CARLA) sought a writ of administrative mandamus seeking to compel the project's approval.2 The trial court denied the petition, ruling that the project did not satisfy the City's design guidelines for multifamily homes and that, to the extent the HAA required the City to ignore its own guidelines, it was an unconstitutional infringement on the City's right to home rule and an unconstitutional delegation of municipal powers.

We conclude otherwise. The design guideline the City invoked as part of its reason for rejecting this housing development is not "objective" for purposes of the HAA, and so cannot support the City's decision to reject the project. And because the HAA checks municipal authority only as necessary to further the statewide interest in new housing development, the HAA does not infringe on the City's right to home rule. Rejecting the City's other constitutional arguments as well, we reverse.


Tony Gundogdu submitted an application to build a four-story, ten-unit multifamily residential building (the building or the project) in San Mateo in 2015. As proposed, the building would stretch the length of a block on North El Camino Real, bounded by El Camino Real on the east, West Santa Inez Avenue at the south, and Engle Road at the north. West Santa Inez Avenue and Engle Road are both in residential neighborhoods of single-family houses. Immediately to the west of the project are a two-story house on West Santa Inez Avenue and a single-story house on Engle Road. The project site is designated in the City's general plan—and zoned—for high-density multifamily dwellings, "R4" Zoning.

Staff to the City's Planning Commission (the Commission) reviewed Gundogdu's application and, after securing minor changes to the proposal, concluded it was consistent with the City's general plan and its Multi-Family Design Guidelines (the Guidelines). Staff recommended the Commission approve the project. They reported that "[v]ariations in the roof forms help to create a transition" between the building and the single-family homes to the north and west, and that "[p]roposed landscaping helps to soften the structure and provide buffers to the adjacent single-family residences." Alterations made at the behest of Commission staff included adding trellises to facades "to create more articulation and add horizontal elements," thus "reduc[ing] the appearance of height."

The application came before the Commission in August 2017. At the hearing, a number of City residents opposed the project, on grounds including concerns that it was out of scale with the adjacent single-family residential area. The Commission continued the hearing. Before the next hearing, planning staff again recommended approval, subject to revised conditions. The staff again proposed the Commission find the project is "in scale and harmonious with the character of the neighborhood" and "meets all applicable standards," including that it "complies with the City's Multi-Family Dwelling Design Guidelines."

On September 26, 2017, commissioners nonetheless expressed concern that the proposed building was out of scale with the houses in the neighborhood, and the Commission voted to disapprove the project, directing staff to prepare findings for denial. So directed, the staff next proposed findings that the project is "not in scale and ... not harmonious with the character of the neighborhood." The building is "too tall," "too large and bulky for the subject site due to [its] four-story height," and "not in keeping with the smaller one and two story dwellings in the area." Key to this case, the proposed findings noted that on the Engle Road side there is a two-story differential between the project and adjacent single-family dwellings (ignoring the fourth story, which is stepped back). Thus, "[t]he project is not in substantial compliance with" the Guidelines’ limitations on building scale, which direct that if there is more than a one-story variation in height between adjacent buildings, "a transition or step in height is necessary," including that a project should "step back upper floors to ease the transition."

Adopting these proposed findings in full, the Commission denied the project without prejudice on October 10, 2017. The City Council considered the appeal on February 5, 2018, and upheld the Commission's decision, also denying the application without prejudice. Appellants then brought this action seeking a writ of administrative mandamus ( Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5 ) on the ground the denial violated the HAA.

The trial court denied the petition. Before doing so, the court asked the parties for additional briefing on a number of issues, including the following: "If either party contends that some aspect of [subdivision] (f)(4) is or is not enforceable or is or is not applicable to this action, the parties are ordered to provide all authority supporting that contention." In response, the City argued that the HAA's subdivision (f)(4) violates the California Constitution by infringing on the City's right to "home rule"—or control of its own municipal affairs as a charter city—and by unlawfully delegating municipal functions to private parties, and that subdivision (f)(4) raises due process concerns because it deprives neighboring landowners of a meaningful hearing. CARLA did not address these issues, either in its briefing or at the hearing on the petition.

The trial court in its ruling found that the City's Guidelines were " ‘applicable, objective’ " standards for purposes of the HAA and that the project did not satisfy the Guidelines, and accordingly stated it would deny the petition for writ of mandate. Despite reaching this seemingly dispositive result, the court went on to conclude that, to the extent the HAA conflicted with "otherwise enforceable portions of the city's Municipal Code regarding review of housing development projects," it was unenforceable as an impermissible intrusion into the City's municipal affairs under the home rule doctrine of the California Constitution ( Cal. Const., art. XI, § 5 (a)) and violated the...

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2 books & journal articles
  • Top Ten Real Property Cases of 2022
    • United States
    • California Lawyers Association California Real Property Journal (CLA) No. 41-1, March 2023
    • Invalid date
    ...would physically preclude construction of a project").42. California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund v. City of San Mateo, 68 Cal.App.5th 820 (1st Dist. 2021).43. Id. at p. 844.44. Banker's Hill 150 v. City of San Diego, supra, 74 Cal.App.5th at p. 777 (quoting California Renters ......
  • Mcle Self-study Article Public Policies and Legislation Fostering Housing in California
    • United States
    • California Lawyers Association California Real Property Journal (CLA) No. 41-1, March 2023
    • Invalid date
    ...65905.5 subd. (a), 66300, subd. (a)(7) [definition of objective standards.]19. California Renters Legal Advocacy (1st Dist. 2021) 68 Cal. App.5th 820.20. Id..21. Cal. Gov. Code, §§ 65920, et seq.22. California Renters Legal Advocacy, supra, 68 Cal.App.5th 820.23. Save Livermore Downtown v. ......

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