ENCINITAS — Encinitas updated its previous state-mandated affordable housing plan so late that it can now potentially count the same lower-income housing blueprint for the next planning cycle, without risking a further need to increase residential density.
Local jurisdictions must periodically, to the state government’s satisfaction, update the Housing Element (or chapter) of their General Plans. These updates—though unenforceable and only marginally effectual—mean to ensure that cities’ land-use policies reasonably enable private sector housing production to satisfy forecasted demand affordably, and at all income levels.
Encinitas failed to adopt its state-mandated Housing Element covering 2013 to 2021 until 2019 — seven years into an eight-year planning period. The city finalized its plan only after a superior court judge compelled it to do so, overriding the city’s otherwise deadlocked system of rezoning by referendum.
Now local governments are updating their Housing Elements again, this time covering 2021 to 2029. While they have until next April to pass state muster, Encinitas submitted its plan for state review on June 16, months ahead of other North County cities.
This early submission owes in part to the city having committed in its 2019 update to adopt its subsequent Housing Element “in a timely fashion.” City planning staff told The Coast News they want to allow adequate time for revisions.
But also, the faster the city moves, the more likely it is that no developer will build on one of the sites the city zoned in 2019 for higher-density, lower-income housing. In that case, the city could potentially reuse its entire lower-income site inventory from the last cycle in the next.
“We’re much better off, in my opinion, getting this [next update] … behind us as fast as possible, while we can still take full credit for our [previously identified] units,” Councilwoman Jody Hubbard said at a council meeting Dec. 11, the last time the Housing Element update appeared on the agenda.
No new sites to meet lower-income housing targets would mean no possibility of “up-zoning” additional parcels to allow higher-density construction — and no accompanying political backlash.
“The city intends to utilize the sites rezoned as a part of the [last] cycle Housing Element update,” according to the city’s web site. “It will not be necessary to identify new additional sites zoned at 30 units per acre or more ….”
Encinitas’ maximum density zoning designation used to be R-25, which allowed 25 residential units per acre. But the city’s coerced 2019 update required rezoning certain parcels under a newly created R-30 designation, which allows 30 dwelling units per acre and taller buildings.
As a guideline, the state considers 30 units per acre the minimum density to achieve affordability at lower incomes in metropolitan areas. The rationale is that, with more income-generating units builders can spread project costs — land, materials, labor, debt — while still keeping at least some prices low enough to be considered affordable.
Encinitas’ 2019 up-zoning to meet the state’s density threshold proved widely unpopular.
“Encinitas was incorporated to maintain local growth, that’s what Encinitas is for,” city resident Dan Vaughn told councilmembers during a Dec. 11 meeting.
“The housing issue is not a technical task, it is a political project,” Juliana Maxim told the council. The 2019 update process “left most of us thoroughly alienated.”
Several residents cited a proposal—since aborted by developer Randy Goodson—to build 277 apartments, of which 236 would’ve been market-rate and 41 affordable—a ratio of 6 to 1.
Extrapolating this proportion, Maxim believed the “R-30 strategy requires us to enlarge the city by almost a third,” calling it “Robin Hood for speculators.”
Prior to the 2019 update, several builders wrote to the city government, expressing their interest to redevelop their Encinitas properties at higher densities. So did a hodgepodge of other owners, including a garden nursery, a flower grower and two churches.
In recycling its lower-income site inventory, Encinitas would surpass its next-cycle obligation. The last cycle, Encinitas had to plan for 1,449 lower-income units. This cycle, its obligation falls by 42 percent to 838 units. So, the same inventory this time would yield a 611-unit surplus.
By comparison, Carlsbad’s obligation in the same categories increased by 31 percent.
Encinitas needs to identify additional sites only in the state’s highest income category, priced for a family of four earning roughly $111,000 or more. The city’s proposal to the state puts those new sites especially in the Leucadia and Olivenhain neighborhoods, but without requiring any rezoning.
Encinitas’ reduced lower-income housing obligation owes to a change in how quotas are allocated as a function of proximity to transit and jobs, according to a statement from SANDAG, the regional agency in charge of countywide allocations.
Moreover, “it is not as simple as rolling over sites from a previous Housing Element, and Encinitas will need to work with the [state] to ensure compliance” with state housing law amended in 2017, according to SANDAG.
Attorneys on behalf of the city rebuffed “repeated attempts to portray the city as a bad actor on housing issues” in a March 6 letter to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. They highlighted Encinitas’ approval of bonus density projects, inclusionary housing policy, and “permit ready” accessory dwelling unit program.
The Encinitas City Council did not substantively respond to a request for comment.