Clovis city and Fresno County officials, along with representatives from UPholdings and Self Help Enterprises, cut the ribbon on Butterfly Gardens, 75 units of permanently supportive housing on Ashland and Holland Avenues in south Clovis, on December 5, 2022. Credit: Natasha Biasell / Ivy Public Relations

Will the “Clovis Way of Life” include more opportunities for lower-income people, working class families, and people of color to enjoy all the city has to offer? 

It depends: City officials will have to zone for over 4,400 more medium and higher-density homes, after an appeals court ruled that the city has not done enough to provide affordable housing or reverse segregation.

A Friday ruling by Judge Donald R. Franson, Jr. of California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal found that the city’s housing element did not zone enough land for affordable housing. Clovis officials appealed the original May 2021 decision claiming that their adoption of a zoning overlay, allowing multi-family homes in some parts of the city, met the state’s requirements. The appeals court disagreed.

In California, cities are required to meet the state’s affordable housing goals, in part, by having enough land planned and zoned to meet demand for affordable housing.

The ruling also went further to say that claims by the plaintiff – Dez Martinez, a prominent activist for unhoused people – that the city’s housing policies have resulted in discrimination against people of color and low-income households – are valid, and deserve further examination by the lower court.

“You want to cry from happiness, and excitement. This is a huge, historical thing,” said Martinez. “I’m overjoyed about the number of people who will be able to reside in Clovis because of this.” 

The ruling is monumental, according to Valerie Feldman, with the Public Interest Law Project, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys – because it establishes that cities and counties have to be responsible for proactively reducing segregation through land use and housing policy.

“Discrimination doesn’t have to be tied to the denial of a particular development. Things like the lack of zoning, creating barriers to affordable housing – that all rises to the level of a violation,” Feldman explained.

How did we get here?

In 2019, Martinez – along with attorneys at Central California Legal Services – filed a lawsuit against the City of Clovis, claiming that the city violated state housing law and discriminated against lower-income people and people of color.

The lawsuit further alleged that Jose Flores, the former Clovis mayor, had said at a city council meeting in October 2018 that complying with state housing law, requiring the city to build more affordable housing, would be a “burden” which would “lower the Clovis standard.”

In California, the state considers high-density housing to be a proxy for affordable housing, since most affordable housing developers cannot make lower-density projects financially feasible.

A May 2021 ruling by Fresno County Superior Court Judge Kristi Culver Capetan found the city’s housing plan lacking and ordered officials to plan and zone for an additional 4,425 low-income homes in 120 days. 

The Clovis City Council voted unanimously, later that month, to appeal the ruling to the Fifth District Court of Appeal.

Friday’s ruling re-affirms the mandate for Clovis officials to rezone enough land to accommodate 4,425 multi-family homes across the city.

“The City just received the appellate court opinion and the City Attorney’s office is reviewing the opinion,” said Shonna Halterman, the general services director for the city. “We anticipate the city will be evaluating its options to remain compliant with applicable law. We have no further comment at this time.”

“This ruling brings down the ‘walls’ Clovis has built over the past half-century,  using its planning and zoning regulations to make it significantly whiter and wealthier than its neighboring cities,” said Patience Milrod, former executive director of Central California Legal Services, and an attorney for the plaintiff.

But the ruling only requires Clovis to rezone land to accommodate multi-family homes (again, as a proxy for low-income housing) – not to build the homes themselves.

In a Dec. 20 interview with Fresnoland, Clovis mayor Lynne Ashbeck pushed back against the notion that Clovis city leaders are deliberately limiting the number of affordable housing built in its area, calling it “the biggest myth of all.”

“Cities don’t build anything. Cities have no money to construct housing,” she said. “We can do our part; we can rezone the land; we can make sure there’s roads; we can waive fees; we can do all of that, and the city of Clovis has done that.” 

Ashbeck could not be reached for comment on the ruling as of Friday afternoon.

Growth, affordable housing goals continue to clash

Clovis city council members – despite the lawsuit – have still displayed hesitance at permitting affordable housing to be built in any neighborhood across the city, including the city’s affluent northern growth areas.

Areas in brown are majority-white neighborhoods; areas in green are majority-Latino neighborhoods; areas in purple are majority Asian neighborhoods. Source: California Housing and Community Development, AFFH Data Viewer, April 2023

During a November 2022 city council discussion about expanding the city’s sphere of influence by developing more than 1,000 acres, Clovis council member Drew Bessinger stated that neighbors won’t have to “worry about high density housing being placed in any of this (1,000-acre) area.”

Former Councilmember Bob Whelan said, “there is hardly any place where you can feel very secure that there won’t be affordable housing” nowadays.

The city initiated a ‘prezoning’ of some of the land in this area – north of Shepherd, and east of Willow – at a March city council meeting.

Dez Martinez, for now, is ready to see some momentum.

“I was happy when they built Butterfly Gardens,” she said, “but that was 75 people. Can you imagine, creating housing for 4,000 plus people? I’m pretty sure these units will be filled up before they get built.”

Omar Sheikh Rashad and Dympna Ugwu-Oju contributed to this story.

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