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Carlsbad considers sites for affordable housing

CARLSBAD — The City of Carlsbad has begun winnowing sites that might support lower-income affordable housing development, with an eye especially toward repurposing industrial properties and streamlining accessory dwelling unit construction.

This inventorying of sites forms a principal component of the city’s process, underway since January, of updating its General Plan to satisfy state-mandated affordable housing goals.

Through its cyclical Regional Housing Needs Assessment (“RHNA”), the state government assigns every city housing production targets in four household income categories — very-low, low, moderate and above-moderate.

The current cycle covers 2013 to 2021 and ends next April. The General Plan update currently underway, which will cover 2021 to 2029, must accommodate the increased demand for lower-income units.

Carlsbad, like every other North County city, has in the past relatively easily met its above-moderate income targets but hasn’t remotely met targets in lower-income categories. While the reasons for this are complex and debated, the private and public sectors both play a role.

“[Statewide] the development capacity is lower than the demand. When you can make a higher profit off a higher income unit, the limited resources we have in construction tend to go there,” Rick Rust, a consultant, told the city’s ad hoc Housing Element Advisory Committee at its June 22 meeting. “That typically [means] putting a larger house onto a smaller property,” rather than the denser construction — multifamily, condos, townhomes — often required to make projects financially viable at lower rents. “The city cannot make development happen … [or] force a property owner to change what they’re doing on their property.”

On the other hand, the city government “definitely has a hand in affordability through its regulations,” he said.

So, for its part, the city must identify properties, sufficient both in number and zoning, with realistic potential for a private or nonprofit developer to build affordable housing there—even if the city can’t ultimately guarantee such development.

Projects already underway somewhere in the city’s approval pipeline would satisfy about a quarter of Carlsbad’s lower-income targets. To find room for the remainder, Rust and city planning staff preliminarily assessed the residential development potential of more than 600 parcels citywide.

These fell into five categories—industrial properties, accessory dwelling units (ADUs, aka “granny flats”), vacant land, “underutilized” properties (i.e. properties that could, under the current General Plan, support greater density than what’s presently there), and commercial or other properties that could be repurposed for residential or mixed uses.

The first two options—industrial properties and ADUs—hold the most potential.

Rust and city staff reckon that 47 acres currently zoned for light industrial use, near McClellan-Palomar Airport, could support the construction of nearly 1,200 lower-income units through 2029. That forecast represents fully 56 percent of the city’s lower-income development targets.

Realizing this potential would require “upzoning” those properties to allow relatively high multifamily residential densities — at least 26 dwelling units per acre. For comparison, the average density citywide is about 7 units per acre, according to The Coast News’ analysis of parcel data from the county assessor.

Perhaps not all industrial sites will ultimately prove suitable, since “industrial areas often don’t have all the supporting things that residential needs,” such as proximity to schools and shopping, Rust said. Still, of the available options, “these areas do provide the biggest significant … potential for multifamily housing.”

Rust and city planners estimate that, at historical rates of production, new ADUs through 2029 could yield 200 lower-income units — about 10 percent of the city’s targets in those categories.

“The state feels this is going to be a big winner for overall housing production,” Rust said. “ADUs also help to make your primary residence more affordable because you’re able to share the cost of it with [rent paying tenants].”

Carl Streicher, a Carlsbad resident and advisory committee member, believes the city is ripe for accelerate ADU production, assuming property owners could get adequate financing.

“Right now, there’s confusion for people and it’s expensive to do a cash-out refinance, compared to just rate and term refinance,” he said. “If there were a simple process to pulling the equity out, where people could invest their current equity into those ADUs, you’d see a massive spike.”

Rust said the city might also develop “plug and play” ADU designs, preapproved by the city council. These would save property owners interested in building ADUs the time and money otherwise required to get a custom project through the city’s development approval process.

The County of San Diego, among other jurisdictions, has already implemented standard ADU plans.

City staff declined to furnish a list of the parcels under consideration, though readers can find PDF maps available at

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Will Johnson July 6, 2020 at 7:40 am

Financing ADUs has several options. Perplexed by the comment of Cash out Refi as an expensive option. Compared to what? Other financing options are available: renovation loans, construction loans, hard money and even reverse mortgage. With record low financing, this is a great time to refinance and put your real estate equity to work.

Adele Jenkins June 28, 2020 at 9:07 am

. So, far so good

Matt June 28, 2020 at 6:53 am

I want a beachfront apartment for $200 a month.

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