This case involves a challenge under California’s Housing Crisis Act to the City of Culver City’s ordinance reducing the floor area ratio (FAR) permitted for single-family homes. Plaintiffs Yes in My Back Yard and Sonja Trauss (collectively, YIMBY) filed a petition for writ of mandate after the city adopted Ordinance No. 2020-010, which lowered the FAR from 0.60 to 0.45 in the single-family residential (R-1) zone.
The trial court ruled in favor of YIMBY, finding a violation of the Housing Crisis Act’s prohibition on reducing residential land use intensity. The Court of Appeal of California affirmed, holding that the ordinance’s FAR reduction plainly violated the Act’s definition of “reducing the intensity of land use.” The court also upheld a fee award to YIMBY under California’s private attorney general statute.
California has been facing a persistent housing shortage crisis. In 2019, the state legislature adopted the Housing Crisis Act to address this problem by limiting restrictions on housing development. The Act prohibits cities from enacting zoning changes that reduce the intensity of land use below what was permitted as of January 2018. This includes express prohibitions on reductions to housing density, height, or FAR.
In July 2020, following a study on “mansionization” concerns, the City of Culver City adopted Ordinance No. 2020-010 to amend its single-family residential zoning standards. Among other changes, the ordinance reduced the maximum FAR from 0.60 to 0.45 for primary structures in R-1 neighborhoods. This change decreased the size of single-family homes that could be built by several hundred square feet.
YIMBY submitted comments asserting that the FAR reduction violated the Housing Crisis Act’s proscription against lessening land use intensity. Nevertheless, the city council unanimously approved the ordinance. YIMBY then filed a petition for a writ of mandate seeking to void the ordinance.
Trial Court Proceedings
The trial court ruled in favor of YIMBY after a hearing, finding the ordinance clearly violated the Housing Crisis Act. The court issued a peremptory writ ordering the city to repeal the ordinance. The court also awarded YIMBY $131,813.58 in attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5, California’s private attorney general statute.
Appellate Court Analysis
The Court of Appeal independently reviews questions of statutory interpretation and affirmed the judgment. The court held that the plain language of Government Code §66300 prohibited the city’s FAR reduction. The court explained that the statutory definition of “reducing the intensity of land use” expressly includes decreases to FAR. This unambiguous language reflects the legislature’s intent to broadly limit local policies that negatively impact housing development.
Though the city argued the purpose was only to restrict density reductions, the court declined to rewrite the statute by reading the language out. The FAR reduction was not exempt as affordable housing policy, nor did the city show the ordinance actually increased density. Given the clear statutory violation, the award of attorney fees was also proper as YIMBY’s action enforced important housing rights and benefited the public interest.
- Cities cannot reduce single-family residential FAR below January 1, 2018 baseline levels per the Housing Crisis Act.
- Plain statutory text controls over arguments about legislative purpose.
- The Housing Crisis Act broadly limits policies that reduce land use intensity.
- Substantial attorney fee awards are available under California private attorney general law.
- Ordinances violating state housing laws face heightened scrutiny.
- Zoning changes must ensure no net loss of residential density.
In Yes In My Back Yard v. City of Culver City (2023), the Court of Appeal of California affirmed a ruling that the City of Culver City’s ordinance lowering the permissible floor area ratio in single-family zones violated express provisions of the Housing Crisis Act prohibiting reduced land use intensity. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s order to repeal the ordinance and substantial attorney fee award under California’s private attorney general statute.
This precedent reinforces cities’ limited authority to alter single-family housing zoning regulations in a manner that lessens residential development capacity, absent special exemptions. Additionally, the availability of fee recovery provides incentives regarding legal challenges enforcing housing laws against zoning actions that run counter to state policy objectives. Given the clarity of the statutory text, courts are likely to strike down similar municipal FAR reductions without much deference.