State Supreme Court Tells Santa Cruz County It’s Not Above the Law

By Freedom Advocates Staff
August 4, 2004

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Santa Cruz County government is once again admonished by a high court for abusing citizens.

In a major victory for property rights, the California Supreme Court [on July 29, 2004] rejected Santa Cruz County’s attempt to deny local property owners the opportunity to challenge the county’s legally dubious rent control on “granny flats.”

The Costa-Hawkins Act, a state law that took effect in 1996, prohibits rent control on new housing units. But Santa Cruz County has proceeded as if Costa-Hawkins was never put on the books, by continuing to impose rent-control on new second units (“granny flats,” as they are widely called.)

Three local property owners — Steven Travis and Dr. and Mrs. Stanley Sokolow — challenged the rent control mandate after it was applied to them in the late 1990s. But the county argued that they were too late — that there was only a narrow window in time for challenging the local ordinance after it had been preempted by Costa Hawkins.

After a court of appeal sided with the county, Pacific Legal Foundation took over the case and represented the property owners before the state Supreme Court. With yesterday’s ruling, the county was defeated. “The Supreme Court rejected the county’s crabbed reading of law which would deny aggrieved property owners their day in court,” said PLF attorney Harold Johnson. The Court ruled, instead, that any time a legally suspect condition is slapped on property, the owner has a right to challenge it — within 90 days of the condition being imposed.

This will allow the challenge to rent control to go forward, because Steven Travis brought his lawsuit fewer than 90 days after rent control conditions were imposed on his property.

Underlying this entire case is the larger issue of the malignant effects of rent control itself. “In a community with a desperate need for new housing, the Santa Cruz rent restrictions only depress supply,” said PLF’s Johnson. “Who wants to provide rental housing if you can’t earn a free market return?”

The Supreme Court ruling ensures that Santa Cruz County can’t escape judicial review when it thumbs its nose at state law that prohibits rent control. “Bottom line,” said PLF’s Johnson: “The ruling said that county officials are not above the law.”

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