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For the current RHNA cycle, Carlsbad has met only 20 percent of its targets in lower income categories. Courtesy photo
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Carlsbad grapples with affordable housing, density tradeoffs

CARLSBAD — To meet its state-mandated affordable housing obligations through 2029, the city of Carlsbad must find space for nearly 700 additional housing units priced for lower-income households, likely in part by increasing residential density in some places.

“To hit the different targets that the state gives to us, we have to provide housing at some of these higher densities — especially for the lower-income ranges,” said city planner Don Neu at the ad hoc Housing Element Advisory Committee’s May 13 meeting.

Through the summer, this advisory committee — comprising council-appointed residents ostensibly representing a variety of citizen interests — will hone recommendations to the city council about where specifically in the city to add units and density.

As the committee’s name suggests, identifying space for affordable housing involves revamping the so-called Housing Element (or chapter) of the city’s General Plan.

To ensure the housing supply remains diversely priced for a spectrum of household incomes, the state requires local governments to update their Housing Elements every eight years.

These updates are based on population forecasts published in the state’s cyclical Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA. The present RHNA cycle expires soon; the update now under consideration will cover 2021 to 2029.

In a nutshell, Housing Element updates compel local governments to ensure their regulatory soils provide a credible potential for affordable projects to germinate. They must, among other things, identify viable parcels — or rezone parcels to make them viable — on which private and nonprofit developers might feasibly build enough housing to meet RHNA targets.

A parcel’s viability depends on several factors, such as allowable density, proximity to transit and other services, and the existing owner’s willingness to redevelop or repurpose the property.

“We have to prove to the state that we have a realistic housing solution,” said Rick Rust, a consultant hired to help the advisory committee complete its task. “You’re required to find places for all this housing to go, and you’re supposed to provide programs that will help achieve this. … You’re trying to make sure that you’re not in the way of this housing coming to fruition.”

Ultimately, fruition isn’t guaranteed. For the current RHNA cycle, coming to a close next year, Carlsbad has attained only 20 percent of its targets in lower-income categories, according to the latest progress report. Nevertheless, cities must at least lay plausible groundwork.

Carlsbad residential density graphic
Please see bottom of the page for an explanation of the above chart. Data graphic by Dan Brendel

The city’s advisory committee must winnow a preliminary list (not yet public) of more than 600 potential sites to some final number reasonably able to accommodate all the required units. A draft plan will become available for public review in the fall, receive a public hearing in the winter, go to council for adoption next spring, and then finally go to the state for approval.

The crucial difference between this update cycle and the last isn’t that the city has to plan for more units overall — its total requirement has actually lessened — but that it must plan for a higher proportion at lower prices.

RHNA affordability targets fall into four income categories — low, very low, moderate, and above moderate — relative to the countywide median income. For instance, for a unit to qualify as affordable at a very low income (about $58,000 or less per year), it must cost no more than about $1,400 per month.

In the last update, low and very low targets accounted for 32 percent of Carlsbad’s total RHNA allocation, compared to 54 percent this time.

Initial projections suggest Carlsbad could achieve about two-thirds of its obligations in these lower categories through existing means — such as the inclusionary housing policy and allowance of accessory dwelling units. That leaves some 700 lower-income units for which the advisory committee must find viable possible sites.

Myriad physical and “jurisdictional” constraints preclude large swaths of the city as suitable locations.

“Areas that have more constraints are more costly to develop or more difficult to develop,” said Rust. “All those things make it less likely that you’re going to develop low-income housing.”

For example, it’s possible to build on steep slopes (a physical constraint), but much more expensive than building on flatter land.

It’s possible to build within the state’s Coastal Zone or the McClellan-Palomar Airport Influence area (jurisdictional constraints), but doing so adds approval wickets, lengthening the time a developer must carry debt before a project generates income.

For satisfactorily unconstrained areas, the city has a few basic options at its disposal to enable lower-income housing production, according to a May 27 committee briefing.

First, it can allow higher residential densities in select places.

“More housing units on a site (density) translates to lower construction costs per unit, which translates to lower rental/sale prices of those units (affordability),” at least from the state government’s perspective, according to a city bulletin.

Though the city cautions that density alone isn’t a silver bullet, but must accompany the thoughtful application of other regulatory incentives and subsidies.

“While the city acknowledges that the availability of higher density residential sites is directly related to the achievement of higher density housing, experience has demonstrated that in Carlsbad, the private housing market would not develop affordable housing solely because of the availability of high-density land; instead, market intervention by local government is required,” according to the current Housing Element.

In any case, “The state has given us certain requirements, and the only way to meet them is to have [at least] some high density,” Rust said at the committee’s May 13 meeting.

This option has evoked mixed reactions from committee members.

“If we’re talking about things that are important to Carlsbad, things that I hear about are … preservation of views, open access, space,” said committee member Carl Streicher at the committee’s April 8 meeting. “The lifestyle that’s been created in Carlsbad is something that’s special and unique. We don’t want this to turn into a Santa Ana.”

Other committee members raised concerns about exacerbating traffic and parking congestion.

As a second option, the city could allow additional mixed-use development — for example, residential units over first floor retail — on sites that are currently commercial only. This option received positive feedback from several committee members.

“Mixed-use for me, all the way,” said committee member Daniel Weis. “It helps create jobs, sales tax revenue, … gives people different options that they can walk to. …  [Though] I don’t see how you can avoid [higher density in certain places] if we really wanted to make up for this shortfall.”

Finally, the city might re-designate non-residential parcels for residential use. Rust and city staff identified 17 industrial sites, which they reckon could alone accommodate more than 1,400 new units. Though “some of [these industrial sites] are a little more isolated from other supporting services,” Rust said.

“I’d like us to explore that [option] a little bit more,” said committee member Terri Novak. Due to COVID-19, some businesses “are looking at not even bringing people back to their office spaces,” potentially freeing up certain commercial sites for residential use, as well.

The advisory committee meets again on June 10. Send public comment to [email protected] or call the city planning division at (760) 602-4618.

Data graphic caption: For Carlsbad and other jurisdictions considered to be urban metropolitan areas, [state law says] that a density of 30 units per acre is appropriate to enable lower-income housing,” according to Carlsbad’s current Housing Element. This is not a hard and fast rule; Carlsbad is able in many cases to achieve affordability with densities less than 30 units per acre. In any case, it’s a relevant guideline, and this graphic intends to show the “big picture” of how Carlsbad measures up against it. Our data comes from the County Assessor, in a format made for data mapping. Among other things, this data includes counts of dwelling units on every tax parcel. We calculated densities by adding up all units associated with each parcel to which the assessor has assigned one of the following land use categories (or “Nucleus Use Code”): manufactured home, single- and multi-family residential, condo, combination residential and commercial building, rest/retirement/convalescent/assisted living home, trailer and mobile home park. City staff was unable to comment on the graphic before our going to press. This graphic begins what we hope will be frequent use of so-called “data reporting.” Please bear with us as we experiment with this capacity, learn to work with data providers, and iron out the kinks. 

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Casandra Tompkins June 6, 2020 at 1:33 am

Has the current or planned construction been included in Carlsbad’s numbers of just 20%? I know there is low income housing included in the planned Marja Acres development on El Camino across from Robertson Ranch and there is an assisted living going in on Cannon east of El Camino Real.

I wonder why Carlsbad has never gone the route of offering to carry 2nd mortgages for law enforcement, teachers, city employees, etc. This is utilized in the Bay Area to help with low income housing. After all, don’t we won’t our first responders living in Carlsbad?

As far as homeless shelters, LaPosada for men near the police station has plans to add beds soon and later develop it into a shelter to include families. Beyond that it is a struggle in Carlsbad to find locations for shelters without people 3 or 4 miles away complaining that it will be in their neighborhood. Ideas welcome!

Keith Ochrym June 3, 2020 at 3:58 pm

I hope we can get rid of the homeless population that currently exists in the Carlsbad Village Drive area. It’s a growing population and it’s becoming an eyesore.

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