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Amnesty program may help in affordable housing numbers

ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council has approved a one-year package of incentives to entice owners of illegal dwelling units to come forward and have their units counted toward the city’s affordable housing stock.

But city officials warned there are no guarantees that the state will accept these affordable units toward their future affordable housing numbers, which proponents of the amnesty program have suggested would be the case.

City officials have been looking for ways to prompt owners of so-called “granny flats” to participate in the city’s affordable unit program, which allows property owners to receive permits for their previously unpermitted units in exchange for pledging those units for low-income residents.

The current affordable unit program policy only applies to units that were built prior to the city’s incorporation in 1986 and requires property owners to earmark their units for affordable housing forever. Critics of the program believe these provisions have kept many property owners from participating in the program, which has only 53 participants since its inception.

On Wednesday, the council voted to extend the program to property owners who have built illegal dwelling units before 2004 and shortened the low-income restriction to 20 years, as well as waive the $900 application fee for low-income residents.

Property owners will have until Dec. 31, 2015 to have their applications approved in order to qualify for the incentives.

While the council voted unanimously on several provisions of the amnesty program, including the reduction of the affordability window and a decision to not take an enforcement stance on those who choose not to participate in the program, the council split on other choices.

Kristin Gaspar, Tony Kranz and Mark Muir voted in favor of the 2004 cutoff, while Lisa Shaffer and Teresa Barth were in favor of maintaining the incorporation date for those to participate in the program.

While agreeing in principle with the Shaffer and Barth, Muir said opening a larger window could ensure maximum participation.

“We have to be somewhat flexible if the objective is to attract participants,” Muir said.

The other 3-2 vote was for the fee waiver for low-income residents, which Kranz, Shaffer and Barth supported.

“I don’t see why the city needs to waive fees for people that are not in an income-constrained lifestyle,” said Shaffer, who said she was philosophically opposed to waiving fees for scofflaws, largely due to the message it sends to property owners who went through the permit process.

The amnesty program has been a popular topic in recent months. During the recent mayoral and council campaign, several candidates and opponents of high-density housing said they believed there were enough such units in town to reduce or eliminate the 1,300 or so affordable units the state is mandating the city plan for in its housing element. The housing element is calling for the creation of a new type of residential zone that would accommodate 30 units per acre.

These units are determined by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development through a process called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment.

Jeff Murphy, the city’s planning director, said Wednesday that the state housing department has only agreed verbally to review the city’s amnesty program stock, but there are no guarantees the units would be counted against the city’s mandated affordable units.

“My concern is the thought that the city’s RHNA numbers can be addressed entirely through the amnesty program,” said Murphy, who said the amnesty plan should only be considered part of the city’s affordable housing program, not its entirety.

Councilwoman Teresa Barth also said she had a “social justice” issue with the approach proposed by those who see it that way.

“I have a strong philosophical problem with the assumption that we are going to solve our housing for low- and very-low-income people by letting them live in just acceptable converted garages,” Barth said. “I just don’t think that is who we are as the city of Encinitas.”