With deadline ahead, ‘much work’ needed on Encinitas’ housing plan

ENCINITAS — Encinitas has until Aug. 30 to show where 1,300 state-mandated housing units could be built as part of its housing element. If the city wants to meet the housing element deadline, Encinitas will have to make significant progress. 

Cities could potentially face lawsuits for not adopting a housing element by the end of August. However, Encinitas hasn’t certified a housing element since incorporation in 1986, and yet the city hasn’t been significantly penalized. Still, representatives from the city said it’s important to have a housing element in place to take the threat of lawsuits off the table, make Encinitas eligible for more grants and finish a long-contentious process.

“I’m not sure what will happen, but if we were going to get it done by August, there’s still much work to be done,” Mayor Teresa Barth said.

She added that the city wants to at least demonstrate “forward motion” by August, and that councilmembers and residents have been notably frustrated by the housing element over the years.

The department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) requires that cities turn in a housing element every eight years. For the housing element, cities have to pencil out the potential locations of state-imposed housing. The number of housing units, 1,300 in the case of Encinitas, is derived from population and economic trends.

Encinitas’ efforts to complete a housing element have sputtered. A year-and-a-half ago, citizens soundly rejected a draft of the housing element that called for concentrating housing units on El Camino Real. In response, City Council scrapped the draft of the housing element and sought more input from residents.

After numerous meetings, last month, two citizen groups and the city’s Planning Commission, which were tasked with reviewing the housing element, presented recommendations for where the housing units could be located. City staff said it’s going to find points of consensus among the group’s presentations and bring them to council at an undetermined time.

But council voted not to act on any of those recommendations until the fall, after they’ve had a chance to revisit their goals for the General Plan, which is a document that will steer everything from land use to transportation over the next few decades. The housing element is part of the General Plan. However, in light of the August deadline, Barth said there’s a chance council could review the housing element earlier than the rest of the General Plan.

“That’s an option — not one I’m sure we’d pursue,” Barth said.

For now, the housing element is in limbo, Barth said. First, the city is looking for a new planning director, who will manage the housing element from this point forward.

“The first job of the new planning director will be to discuss that situation and advise the council accordingly,” Barth said.

Some residents at council meetings have said that Encinitas is being forced to plan for more than its fair share of housing units. In response, Barth said that council will likely have several discussions over the next few months about how Encinitas can influence the number of state-mandated units assigned to the city during future planning cycles.

As for the 1,300 units that have already been allocated to Encinitas, Michael Strong, associate planner with the city, said that Encinitas and other California cities have “no vested right” to change or overturn the housing that’s been assigned to them.

He pointed to a legal case as precedent: About five years ago, the city of Irvine tried to fight the number of state-mandated housing units demanded of the city with a lawsuit. Ultimately, Irvine lost the two-year legal battle.

Conceivably, developers and affordable housing advocates could sue Encinitas for not having a certified housing element. Strong noted that other cities in California have lost court cases for not having one.

Encinitas faced a lawsuit in the 1990s for its lack of a housing element, yet ultimately won. Strong said he couldn’t speculate as to why Encinitas hasn’t been sued more for being out compliance.

But Strong said there’s no guarantee Encinitas won’t end up in the courtroom if a housing element continues to elude the city.

“Encinitas has been fortunate in that regard,” Strong said. “Whether that continues or not, I couldn’t say.”

Also, Strong said that cities without a housing element in place are less likely to receive grants for transportation projects.

There’s another consequence for missing the deadline. Eric Johnson, a spokesman for HCD, said that cities that don’t adopt a housing element by Aug. 30 are required to submit a plan for state-imposed housing needs every four years, instead of eight. Encinitas is already on a four-year timeline because it has yet to certify a housing element.

Further, housing units allocated to Encinitas during this planning cycle will carryover into the next one.

Yet another factor could affect the city’s housing element. On June 18, residents will decide whether to approve the “right-to-vote” initiative. If it passes, increasing density or building heights beyond 30 feet would require a majority vote of the public.

Presentations from groups looking at the housing element recommended selectively putting four or five story buildings in certain locations to accommodate some of the 1,300 units. This would trigger a vote if the initiative becomes law.

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