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Vista housing ordinance: The municipal code previously did not allow for single-family lots smaller than 6,000 square feet.
The municipal code previously did not allow for single-family lots smaller than 6,000 square feet. Courtesy photo
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Vista council adopts housing ordinance allowing smaller single-family lots

VISTA — Vista is driving a path to increase its housing availability for every resident. 

While the state has dropped several mandates to encourage dense and low-income developments, the Vista City Council is working to ensure every resident has affordable housing options.  

On Tuesday, the council addressed a little bit of both those goals by adopting a housing ordinance that allows for small-lot, single-family residential units to promote affordable homeownership.

The motion passed 4-0 with one amendment. Mayor Judy Ritter was absent from the vote.

“We build condos that are actually detached homes,” said Councilmember Joe Green, who runs a real estate agency. “But there was no space in our code to say they were single-family detached homes.” 

The municipal code previously did not allow for single-family lots smaller than 6,000 square feet. Previously, developers were able to get around the city’s minimum lot size for detached units by building condominiums versus single-family homes, a change only in verbiage and legal ownership of the land. 

“It comes out looking like a nice project,” said John Conley, Vista’s community development director. “But, buyers have difficulty understanding why they’re not buying their lot, and sellers have difficulty because they’re not selling the actual property.”

Green said this framework — rather than a condominium model based on dues and owner-occupancy — makes it easier for homebuyers to obtain financing. 

“So creating a fee-simple product like this, where every homeowner is responsible for their property, allows them to finance them individually as opposed to a big cohort of other property owners,” Green said. 

The new ordinance lays out standard requirements for housing developments but for a lot size of 3,600 square feet and a lot width of 45 feet — no exceptions. 

The council did step away from a parking requirement of five spots originally proposed on Tuesday and dropped it down to four.

The municipal body also removed stipulations that regulated who could use the parking spots.

While there are less than a dozen empty lots suitable for this type of development, city staff zoned these units in areas largely encompassed by District 1 up to a density of 15 dwelling units per acre. In an effort to maintain the aesthetic of possible neighborhoods, City Planner Patsy Chow said that the small lot developments most closely resemble the zoning requirements in the R-1-B and R-M zones. 

The small lot subdivisions are also subject to conditions and restrictions governed by maintenance associations or agreements, depending on the size of the development. 

While detached owner-occupied units are not new, the rule is a move toward diversifying affordable homeownership, while also adhering to the state’s unit-dense goals.  

“I’m glad that we’re able to make accommodations for these smaller lots that could allow for more housing opportunities without withholding areas that are better suited for higher density,” said Councilmember Katie Melendez. 

The small lot subdivision ordinance is one way Vista is cleaning up its rulebook to address all types of housing options. 

Ask passersby in the heart of the city’s downtown: It’s expensive to rent in Vista.

Jazmin Weidell, 22, works at a local bar and coffee shop and agrees with her neighbors. While the 22-year-old isn’t currently paying rent, she’s on the search and hopes to be in a new apartment for about $1,400 per month for a one-bedroom. 

A February report from the Times of San Diego found that the average price for a one-bedroom in Vista is more than $2,100. 

While Weidell expects to hunt, she doesn’t necessarily agree with pumping the city with new development.  

“Some of its good,” Weidell said, adding that there’s a visible need for it. 

“(However,) I noticed (new development) is taking up the natural environment, what we have left,” she said.  

This year, rules went into effect statewide that allow landowners and developers to create unit-dense areas in a city that is running out of available land. 

In fact, the state has given developers more tools to increase dwelling units per acre and weakened cities’ ability to block pieces of projects, so long as units are geared toward those making under the average median income. 

“The statewide battle over densification has come to Vista,” Deputy Mayor John Franklin told The Coast News. “Voters have a choice to make, are we going to build up the city of Vista to be as dense as Los Angeles or are we going to preserve our bucolic and suburban character? We already have density mandates from Sacramento, but now the city is poised to add additional density mandates. I don’t believe the people of Vista want to create a little L.A.”

Recently, Councilmember Corinna Contreras has asked to bring back an inclusionary housing policy that her predecessors repealed in 2015.  

In San Diego County, the affordable housing developments serve those who earn 80% of the average median income. More than half of the households in Vista had lower than 80% average median income. 

The hope is that now, with the California Density Bonus benefits and this year’s mandates that make breaking ground easier, an inclusionary housing policy can support gaps in affordable housing.

According to its latest Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA, the city must add more than 1,200 units for very low to moderate incomes (at or under 80% average median income) and about 1,300 market-rate units by 2029. 

However, some are skeptical that an inclusionary housing policy will work this time for those with affordable rental needs. Both the deputy mayor and Mayor Judy Ritter voted against the measure.

“When we talk about ‘affordable housing’ we sometimes fail to distinguish between government-subsidized housing and free-market housing that is affordable by design,” Franklin cautioned. 

Franklin sat on the council that repealed the 1985 inclusionary policy, updated in 2006. 

“I think using the term ‘subsidized’ in policy discussions also recognizes that taxpayers are paying that subsidy,” Franklin said.   

Rules effective this year in the state this year are a clear message to the city to streamline development. However, some are focused on preserving Vista’s suburban lifestyle. 

This summer, the council is expected to consider bringing back a program to reserve a percentage of new units for affordable housing. City staff has been directed to explore an inclusionary housing policy that includes one point which is to require 8% of developments to be “affordable” units.

During the time the inclusionary housing policy was in effect, the city developed 22 for sale and 19 rental inclusionary housing units and collected more than $1.6 million toward its Affordable Housing Fund in in-lieu fees. 

“All of our money is from old redevelopment dollars not incurring any more at this point,” said Amanda Lee, assistant city manager, regarding the fund at a city council meeting in April. 

Part of the city’s affordable housing dollars is designated for housing the homeless. Councilmember Contreras told her colleagues that the city should consider strategizing its funding. 

“We could potentially have another source of funds for permanent supportive housing if we were to have inclusionary housing in the city of Vista,” she said.  “There’s just so much fruit that we haven’t been able to grasp, but the seeds that we’re planting I am hoping we’re going to be able to reap those.” 

Another sprout in the city’s housing discourse is providing shelter for the unhoused. It’s currently working through a request for a proposal for an apartment-like complex that would provide long-term housing and care services to qualifying people who are currently suffering homelessness. 

While that is in the works the city continues to educate itself and work with the public on a resolution that leverages safe parking for those on the brink of homelessness. While not an adequate shelter, a safe parking ordinance could provide a place for individuals with vehicles to sleep. 

The safe parking programs could also serve as a point of contact for those who are unaware of how to navigate the system and integrate back into society. 

“Safe parking and safe camping is a stopgap measure, and there are just so many benefits that come from this including being able to do outreach, to being able to reduce some of the issues we’ve seen with unhoused people who are in public places…we have residents who are in desperate need of a place to rest their heads, and this is just something that we need to do,” Contreras said at the Jan. 25 meeting.

At the time, Ritter was the only member on the council to dissent, distrusting what actual impact a zoned parking area would have on an individual. 

However, service providers in the community said that it’s not just individuals that need a place to stay in their vehicle. 

“When you’re a family and you have children, you often don’t identify that you’re living in a car because you might be concerned that you could get into trouble with your children,” Cindy Taylor, board president of Operation HOPE told the council on April 26. “There is a need.”

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