California AG Rob Bonta sues Elk Grove for breaking housing law: ‘They have left us no choice’

Paul Kitagaki Jr./Sacramento Bee file
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California’s attorney general is suing the city of Elk Grove for denying a contentious affordable housing project in the city’s Old Town.

“You can’t ignore the law because it doesn’t suit you,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Monday, adding later, “They’ve resisted the law time and time again. They have left us no choice.”

This day was threatened for months, ever since Elk Grove leaders denied the Oak Rose affordable housing project on Elk Grove’s historic east side last July. Developers of the project first sued the city to allow Oak Rose to go forward. State housing officials followed days later with a scathing report that mirrored the developers’ lawsuit, saying denying the project violates state laws that require streamlining of affordable housing construction.

The 66-unit development, a three-story structure on Elk Grove Boulevard near Kent Road in east Elk Grove is near a bus line, shopping and a planned new library.

The building, developers said, would have been the first in Elk Grove to provide permanent housing and services for low-income families who had been homeless. The Elk Grove City Council argued the project was too dense and said plans for ground-floor residences did not comply with Old Town’s zoning requirements. Leaders called on project applicants Oak Rose LP to work with the city to find alternate sites.

Mayor Bobbie Singh-Allen and city leaders have repeatedly denied that Elk Grove broke the law, Singh-Allen said in March: “Elk Grove remains committed to providing housing for all. We reject the notion that Elk Grove is engaged in unlawful discrimination. We remain committed to supporting solutions that balance the needs of all in the community.”

Singh-Allen on Monday again maintained that her city has broken no laws.

“The City of Elk Grove is not a bad actor,” Singh-Allen said “Elk Grove has a strong track record for supporting affordable housing projects and continues to engage in good faith discussions with the Oak Rose Apartments applicant in hopes of reaching a mutually agreeable solution.”

In the same statement, city officials point to more than 1,100 new affordable housing units, including permanent supportive housing units, that are currently in some form of development in Elk Grove. The projects include the 387-unit Poppy Grove Apartments, the city’s largest, on Bruceville Road south of Elk Grove Boulevard. The proposed 236-unit Pardes Project planned for Poppy Ridge Road and Big Horn Boulevard also received an initial approval at last week’s city council meeting.

Meanwhile, Oak Rose’s developers Monday said in a statement they “welcome any action or support the state can provide that will allow us to build permanent housing and support for unhoused residents who need it, in Elk Grove and throughout California.

“(Elk Grove) refused to approve the design of Oak Rose Apartments by claiming it did not meet local standards and wrongfully stating the city was unable to waive those standards,” said Dana Trujillo, CEO of affordable housing developer Excelerate Housing Group. “After months of hearings, we exhausted every avenue with the city to get the project approved. We had no choice but to ask for the court’s assistance to get this project the green light that it legally deserves.”

The lawsuit marks the latest salvo in Gov. Gavin Newsom administration’s fight against cities rejecting of state policies meant to increase access to affordable housing across California.

Last month, Bonta sued Huntington Beach after years of battling over the state’s right to enforce housing laws to ease the housing crunch. Huntington Beach fought back, arguing in a countersuit that the state overreached on the city’s constitutional right to make its own local land-use decisions.

It was the second such lawsuit between the state and the Orange County city after then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued in 2019, accusing local leaders of ignoring a state law mandating that cities and counties identify enough properties to accommodate new residential development. The city agreed to settle the case a year later by adding an amendment to its housing plan, making it easier for developers to build multi-family housing.

Bonta in 2021 created a team within the California Department of Justice dedicated to enforcing state housing laws. Newsom has repeatedly stated that a top priority of his second term is to hold local governments accountable for reducing the state’s homeless crisis and increasing its affordable housing stock.

“At the end of the day, the state vision as it relates to housing cannot be realized anywhere else except locally,” Newsom said at the time. “At the end of the day, we’re all in this together, and we have a responsibility to one another.”

For Elk Grove, Bonta wrote last month to Singh-Allen that legal action was coming if the city did not approve the project: “We’re committed to enforcing the law, and we will not stand idly by in the face of housing discrimination. I urge Elk Grove to reconsider its unlawful denial of the Oak Rose Apartment project, or face the legal consequences.”

On Monday, those consequences became official.

“It’s wrong, it’s illegal, it’s discriminatory. They shouldn’t have done it. That’s why we’re taking them to court,” Bonta said during a news conference Monday. “After discussion and multiple efforts, they continued to flout the law and here we are.”

The Bee Capitol Bureau’s Maggie Angst contributed to this story.