By Maya Srikrishnan.
Encinitas is breaking a state law that says all cities need to plan for how they’ll provide sufficient low-income housing.
It’s the only city in the county that has yet to complete a required plan that would allow for the construction of subsidized housing in the city, according to California’s Department of Housing and Community Development.
The state requires all cities to make way for housing options affordable to low-income residents in their regularly updated growth plans.
Thanks to a proposition passed in 2013, all Encinitas land-use decisions must be approved by voters. Encinitas officials hope they can put together a housing plan that would satisfy state law and go before voters for approval in November 2016.
In the meantime, the city can’t apply for grant funding from the regional planning agency SANDAG, and more importantly, is on precarious legal grounds and vulnerable to lawsuits from developers and affordable housing advocates until its housing plan is approved.
Pleasanton, a Bay Area city of 77,000, settled just such a lawsuit in 2011 after spending $3.9 million fighting its inadequate housing plan, based in part on a previous decision to cap new units.
That lawsuit showed Encinitas that failing to comply with state law could even lead to the state taking over the city’s planning and permitting authority, said city planner Jeff Murphy.
In October, Encinitas was sued by the Building Industry Association, which alleged the city violated state law by passing a law that made it harder for developers to build more homes than allowed on a given property, if they agree to include some low-income units as part of the project.
As part of the settlement in that case, Encinitas committed to putting a plan that would allow it to meet the state’s low-income housing rules on the ballot in 2016.
But if voters don’t approve the plan, Encinitas may have to start the process all over again. And voter approval is far from guaranteed.
“Someone is opposed to it because it will decrease their property values,” said Teresa Barth, former Encinitas mayor and City Council member. “Someone else may be opposed to it because the wrong kind of people might move in. But none of these make sense in the light of day.”
The issue stems from a complicated but long-standing California law that requires every region in the state to plan to allow the construction of enough housing at different income levels.
First, state officials tell each region how much low-income housing they need to plan for based on projected population growth. In San Diego County, SANDAG then distributes that requirement among municipalities. Each city needs to make way for that housing in their citywide development restrictions.
But cities aren’t mandated to actually build that housing, or to dictate that developers build it.
Cities just need to make sure that certain areas within the city allow for the construction of higher-density housing. City governments need to decide what pieces of land will hold the extra homes that the state and SANDAG told them they need to allow for. The idea is the more homes you allow on a piece of land, the cheaper each unit could potentially be.
Encinitas residents can’t agree on where they would want to see this multi-family, higher-density housing. While these plans need to be updated and approved by the state every few years, Encinitas has never even managed to put together a plan to present to the state.
“I don’t want us to look like Little Italy with the five-story bungalows,” said Barth. “But the cost of housing is higher here than in Carlsbad, and we want the people who work here to be able to live here.”
The city has been trying to create a plan for years, and it hasn’t gone smoothly.
In 2011, the city’s planning department created a draft, including areas for high density along major transit routes El Camino Real and Highway 101. The draft was so unpopular that the City Council just dropped it.
During a second attempt, the city tried to get the community more involved from the start. It teamed up with Peak Democracy, an online civic engagement platform, to create a website where residents could see where the increased densities would go, and let users create their own maps and share what they would and wouldn’t be willing to give up. The city hosted day-long trainings and sent out mailers to get people involved.
The effort resulted in three maps that were brought to the City Council this past spring. Rather than decide on one, the Council decided to write environmental reports for all three. Those are now under way. The Council ended its contract with Peak Democracy in February after residents deemed the outreach a failure.
“We always get complaints that there wasn’t enough outreach and I don’t know what more we could have done,” said Encinitas City Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, who was the only Council member to vote to continue working with the online platform.
Gerald Sodomka, a Cardiff resident, said he and many other residents still aren’t happy with the process, or the three proposals that came from it.
“We’ve been through all these map exercises and open meetings,” Sodomka said. “I’ve attended all of them and recognized that there wasn’t an honest presentation of the facts. It is going to be difficult at this point to get a yes vote on the housing element if the process isn’t made more open.”
Sodomka said he doesn’t like the idea of allowing increased density and changing the community character, when developers aren’t required to provide affordable housing on that land. He said he doesn’t see a point in risking the coastal community’s character for a developer to put in more luxury condos.
“For builders, it doesn’t pencil out to build affordable units,” he said. “The real problem in Encinitas is that the land is too expensive. The state is asking Encinitas to do something that is very difficult to do here.”