PASADENA — In March, voters passed a slow-growth initiative that proponents said would put the brakes on runaway development. Last week, a diverse array of community leaders and organizations charged in a lawsuit that the new ordinance is illegal and unfair to minorities and the poor.
The suit, filed Thursday in Pasadena Superior Court, alleges that the ordinance's limits on residential development will reduce revenue for city services and restrict the supply of housing, making it difficult for people with low and moderate incomes to buy homes.
"It's a bad law," said Ibrahim Naeem, director of the Pasadena-Foothill branch of the Urban League, the lead plaintiff in the suit. "It's perverse Robin Hood. It robs from the rich and steals from the poor."
Co-plaintiffs in the suit are the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Pasadena, Minority Business Assn., Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, former mayors Loretta Thompson Glickman and Jo Heckman, former school board President Elbie Hickambottom, and ex-Police Chief Robert McGowan.
The plaintiffs contend that the reduction in new housing will disproportionately affect minorities, immigrants and others with lower incomes than most Pasadena residents. The initiative "unreasonably reduces the availability of housing for such racial groups and will perpetuate indefinitely patterns of segregated housing," in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, the suit alleges.
Michael Salazar, co-chairman of Pasadena Residents in Defense of our Environment (PRIDE), which sponsored the initiative, noted that low-income housing is specifically exempted from the housing caps included in the ordinance. He called the suit a "smoke screen" concocted by development interests.
"It's a delaying tactic to thwart the will of the voters," Salazar said. "I think the real guns behind this are the Chamber of Commerce and the development community."
Attorney Carolyn Carlberg, who filed the suit, said the initiative also violates the interstate commerce clause of the state Constitution and conflicts with the California Environmental Quality Act and the state's community redevelopment act.
However, slow-growth proponents said the plaintiffs are grasping at straws with some of the allegations.
"They've alleged that the initiative is in violation of everything but the United Nations charter," said City Director Rick Cole. "Obviously, they're operating under the assumption that if they throw in every argument, the judge might buy one."
The Growth Management Initiative limits multifamily housing construction to 250 units a year and restricts construction of commercial projects larger than 25,000 square feet to a total of 250,000 square feet a year. It also requires the city to give priority to those projects that "best meet the purposes and intent" of the law while balancing other needs such as producing jobs and revenue.
The initiative, titled Proposition 2 on the March ballot, won approval from 57.2% of the voters in an election that had a 10.9% turnout. Voters chose the ordinance over a rival proposition drafted by the city Board of Directors. Chamber of Commerce President Ann Hight, who campaigned against the initiative, says voters were "sold a bill of goods."
"They were told that Proposition 2 represented a solution; instead, it brought problems," Hight said. One problem, she said, is a $3.5-million budget shortfall resulting from decreased property tax valuations for vacant land.
However, Assistant City Atty. Ann Higginbotham said the plaintiffs will have a difficult time convincing a judge that voters erred in passing the initiative.
"The burden (of proof for the plaintiffs) is very difficult," she said. "Courts are very reluctant to overturn a law that's been enacted by the voters."
Heckman, a real estate broker, said the action was not intended to undercut the will of the electorate.
"I think the people voted in good faith," she said. "They simply didn't realize what the total effect would be."
Salazar disagrees. "I think they not only knew the impact of what they were voting for, I think they knew what they were voting against," he said, referring to the city's competing growth measure.
The Rev. George Van Alstine, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said that while voters may have thought they were safeguarding their quality of life by voting for the initiative, the resulting housing shortage may send many poor families into homelessness.
"We are worried that the quality of life for these families is not being addressed," he said.
Although the plaintiffs contend the growth ordinance is riddled with legal flaws and social inequity, Cole said the law is "the most progressive growth initiative ever proposed, let alone passed, in this state in terms of providing affordable housing."
"This (ordinance) is as good as it gets," Cole said. "This is the culmination of five years of increasing sophistication. This is not something that was Scotch-taped together by a bunch of zealots."