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March 15, 2005
 Joseph Lawrence, Assistant City Attorney, (310) 458-8336

A Superior Court judge has struck down Santa Monica Housing Council’s (“SMHC”) latest request for attorney’s fees in the amount of $218,000.  The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office defended the case on behalf of the city.

In November 2002, SMHC, represented by Christopher Harding, filed a lawsuit against the Santa Monica challenging the city’s application of an ambiguous state law.  The law requires cities to make certain findings before denying certain types of housing projects.  However, it was not clear whether the law should be applied to market rate housing, as well as affordable housing units.     

Even though the state law’s applicability to market rate housing was questionable, the city nevertheless applied the law to all housing projects located in the city.

After the lawsuit was filed, another court clarified that the state law applied to both market rate and affordable housing projects.  Thereafter, the City Attorney advised the City Council in writing that it should continue its past practice of applying the state law to market rate housing.  This essentially mooted the lawsuit.  However, despite the city’s past practice of applying the law, despite the City Attorney’s advice to continue to apply the law, and despite the fact that SMHC could not identify any instances where the city had violated the law, SMHC chose to go forward with its lawsuit.

 In denying SMHC and Chris Harding’s request for fees, Judge Linda Lefkowitz on February 15 found that the lawsuit had resulted in no benefit either to the public or to the property developers to warrant recovery of attorney fees.  Specifically, the Court found that “[p]laintiffs have shown no evidence whatsoever that any developer or any property was ever affected by the City’s position that the [State law] did not apply to the City or to market rate housing.”

The Court went on to find that the record in evidence showed that the City “consistently applied the statute” in compliance with the law.

Indeed, Santa Monica is the Westside leader in housing production.   For the period from 1998 to 2005, the City has permitted 2,547 housing units, already far exceeding its housing allocation of 2,208 units as determined by the Southern California Association of Governments (“SCAG”).  Santa Monica has issued more building permits for multi-family housing than any other Westside city.

Reacting to the decision, Deputy City Attorney Cara Silver noted that “it is unfortunate that private lawyers’ requests for attorney’s fees continue to drive lawsuits in this city.  By opposing SMHC’s fee demand, the City Council has sent a strong message that it will not waste taxpayers’ dollars by paying unwarranted fee demands to lawyers.”

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