ENCINITAS — The City of Encinitas says it doesn’t need to “up-zone” any parcels to get its state-mandated eight-year affordable housing plan approved at the outset.
But the city may need to up-zone sooner or later during that period in order to maintain its state certification.
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 affordability at all income levels.
Encinitas failed to adopt its 2013-2021 plan by the statutory deadline. In 2019, a court ordered the city to update its Housing Element, temporarily overruling the city’s otherwise deadlocked process of zoning-by-referendum.
To meet the state’s requirements and the court’s deadline, the city up-zoned — increased residential density allowances — on several parcels citywide. This up-zoning would allow the kind of denser residential construction — namely, larger multifamily developments — the state generally associates with housing affordability.
Numerous private landowners, including but not only developers, wrote to city council at the time expressing their desire to redevelop at higher densities. But for many other residents, the circumvention of Encinitas’ normal political process and the resultant up-zoning were, and remain, extremely unpopular.
Now cities are preparing their Housing Element updates for the period 2021-2029. While they have until next April, Encinitas submitted its plan for state approval last month. The city has said repeatedly the current update won’t require any additional up-zoning.
Moreover, because it’s state-mandated affordable housing objectives decreased for this planning period, compared to last, the city can roll over a 666-unit surplus of already-up-zoned sites for potential lower-income housing development.
“The [2021-2029] Housing Element does not require any up-zoning,” attorneys on behalf of the city wrote March 6 to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “The city has enough properly zoned sites to fully accommodate the city’s [affordable housing obligations] for the [2021-2029] cycle, with a significant buffer.”
But there’s an important distinction between no up-zoning to get the update approved and no up-zoning throughout the plan’s duration.
“It is possible that there will be a need to up-zone sometime in the next eight years, but it is difficult to predict when or even if that will be needed,” City Planner Jennifer Gates told The Coast News. “While projects have been proposed that would reduce the city’s buffer, none of them have yet been approved” and therefore don’t yet count against the city’s surplus.
“It is also possible that affordable housing could be proposed on sites not included in the Housing Element, or that the city could receive credit for more affordable units due to changes in state laws – for instance, there is a bill [in the state legislature] that proposes to allow more Housing Element credit for [accessory dwelling units],” Gates said.
But Encinitas Planning Commissioner Bruce Ehlers and District 2 council candidate Susan Turney think Gates and the city administration are sugar-coating the issue. In reality, the city would almost certainly need additional up-zoning, perhaps as soon as the next couple years, according to Ehlers and Turney.
Of the 19 sites the city has identified for potential lower-income housing, developers have applications in the works to build on 5. Those applications propose to realize only about one-quarter of those sites’ publicized lower-income unit capacities, according to documents and emails Turney furnished The Coast News. The remaining up-zoned capacity would go to market-rate units.
These five projects alone, if the city permitted them as currently billed, would deplete the city’s advertised buffer by more than 80 percent. If that trend held over the long term (not guaranteed), the city’s entire site inventory advertised as having the capacity for 1,504 lower-income units would only actually yield 394 units — well below the city’s 838-unit quota.
If and when the city exhausts its buffer, state law requires it to identify new parcels — probably requiring additional up-zoning — to replace the deficit.
Asked whether citizens should understand the city’s advertised capacity for 1,504 lower-income units as having any basis in reality, or why the city hasn’t applied some empirically-derived corrective ratio, the city administration didn’t respond.
A Department of Housing and Community Development spokeswoman said only that the state is currently reviewing Encinitas’ submitted plan, which will likely go through several rounds of negotiation and revision.
The Encinitas City Council didn’t respond to a request for comment.