Updated May 4, 9:16 a.m.
Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration filed a lawsuit against Elk Grove on Monday, claiming the city discriminated against low-income residents when it denied an affordable housing project last July.
Attorney General Rob Bonta said the state believes Elk Grove rejected the 67-unit Oak Rose project because it would serve low-income families who had previously been homeless.
“Looking at the evidence, it’s clear this project was denied because of the intended residents,” Bonta said at a press conference.
Elk Grove officials have denied any wrongdoing. They said the project didn’t comply with development standards for its historic Old Town district, which require a retail presence on the ground floor.
“The City of Elk Grove is not a bad actor,” Elk Grove Mayor Bobbie Singh-Allen said in a news release. “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.”
Bonta said Elk Grove rejected the project “under the guise of an ‘objective’ standard.” But he said that same standard — requiring ground floor retail — was not enforced when the city approved a different project.
“So, one project for lower income folks with supportive housing [was] denied. The same approach in a more market rate project, higher income housing [was] approved.”
City officials rejected that claim, saying the “other project referenced by the Attorney General underwent a different, and more traditional review process, under which the City retains greater approval discretion."
The lawsuit is not a complete surprise. It follows a “Notice of Violation” warning letter sent by the state’s housing and community development department last year after Elk Grove denied the project.
A report published last year by the nonprofit California Housing Partnership found Sacramento County has a shortfall of nearly 60,000 affordable homes for its lowest-income renters.
Additionally, the report found that renters in the county must earn more than twice the state’s minimum wage, or $31.25 per hour, to afford the average two-bedroom apartment, up from nearly $27 per hour in 2020.
Peter Cohen is an advocate for affordable housing, and former policy director at the Sacramento Housing Alliance.
He said he’s wary of the state using lawsuits to force cities to approve housing. Instead, he said communities can achieve greater success fostering affordable housing through grassroots organizing efforts to elect new local leaders and pass ballot measures.
“That one-size-fits-all mentality [of filing lawsuits], I don’t think really helps us get better projects or more affordable housing or creates the kind of culture of public support that is ultimately what we need,” Cohen said, later clarifying that lawsuits should not be the only or dominant tool used.
Other affordable housing advocates, including Rachel Iskow, interim executive director at the Sacramento Housing Alliance, said they applaud the state’s action against Elk Grove. She noted Cohen does not currently speak for the housing alliance, which promotes affordable housing.
“Elk Grove’s practice in this matter is what has contributed to the region’s [and the State’s] affordable housing shortfall, and implicitly continues the common practice of pushing affordable development responsibilities to other communities in the region and State,” Iskow said in a written statement.
The suit is the Newsom administration’s latest effort to enforce state housing laws against local governments it says are illegally rejecting new developments as residents struggle to pay for skyrocketing rents and mortgages, largely due to the dearth of affordable housing.
In March, the state sued Huntington Beach, arguing the city’s ban on processing accessory dwelling applications violated state laws. Last fall, the governor temporarily blocked $1 billion in funding for local governments to address homelessness, saying their proposed plans for the funds would not do enough to get people off the streets and into shelter.
While plans for the rejected Oak Rose Apartments remain uncertain in Elk Grove, city officials said they are moving forward on more than 1,100 new affordable housing units citywide, including permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. Officials pointed to a February ground-breaking at Poppy Grove Apartments, a 387-unit affordable housing project, as one example.
Contact CapRadio reporter Chris Nichols at [email protected]
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the position of the Sacramento Housing Alliance on the state’s lawsuit.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.