ENCINITAS — From “tiny homes” to granny flats, the ideas on how Encinitas can solve its affordable housing crisis and meet it state housing mandates flowed from residents Wednesday night.
More than 300 residents attended the housing element workshop, the first public meeting in the city’s latest attempt to gain compliance with state housing law after the city’s proposed housing element update, Measure T, failed at the ballot box in November.
Two community groups — one that included the opposition group to Measure T and the other spearheaded by longtime Encinitas resident Bob Bonde — presented their plans of how the city could achieve state compliance, and dozens of residents chimed in with their input in a more open and back-and-forth dialogue with the City Council and staff than is not often seen at council meetings.
Council members and residents said they felt encouraged after the meeting that they could find a pathway to a publicly acceptable housing plan.
“I think we are all on the same page,” recently appointed Councilman Joe Mosca said after the three-hour workshop.
Encinitas is the lone San Diego County city without an approved update of its housing element, the state-mandated plan that cities must adopt that maps out where they will plan for regionally allocated affordable housing demands.
The city currently faces two lawsuits aimed at compelling the city to adopt a housing element, arguing that local law requires the public to vote on issues such as the housing element illegally preempts state law. Additionally, the state legislature is considering a pair of bills that would target scofflaw cities — one would provide funding for the state Attorney General’s office to crack down on such cities and another would further decrease local control over development activities for cities without approved housing elements.
“The noose is tightening,” said Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who said she believes the city could come up with a plan using Measure T as a starting point that could be back before voters within a year, possibly before the lawsuits made it to trial.
Wednesday’s meeting was broken into several parts — an introduction and outlining of the issues facing the city by Mayor Catherine Blakespear, the alternative housing plan presentations by the two groups, and a question-and-answer and public comment segment moderated by former Escondido Mayor Jerry Harmon.
Sheila Cameron and Bruce Ehlers, speaking on behalf of the No on T Group, outlined their priorities for a new plan, including that it limits the density to below the 30 units per acre of the previous plan, respects Proposition A’s limits on building heights of 30 feet, and eliminates the use of so-called “mixed use” zoning, developments that include residential and commercial buildings.
Another key to the group’s concept was increasing the amount of affordable housing the city mandates with each development, as well as following the lead of other cities that have successfully used granny flats to cut down the number of new units required.
Granny flats, or accessory units, were the crux of Bonde’s plan, which was similar to a plan he presented to the City Council in 2015. He argued strongly that the city should take advantage of the suite of state laws recently passed aimed at making it easier for homeowners to pursue these accessory units.
“Encinitas residents have a history of accepting large numbers of accessory units into their communities,” Bonde said.
A number of residents spoke in favor of employing accessory units, which they said fit more into the character of the existing community than condominiums or apartments. The city currently has a program to bring currently un-permitted accessory units into compliance so they can be counted as part of the affordable housing stock, though the program has had mixed results.
The other concept that seemed to garner a lot of community support were tiny houses, or “micro homes,” which would allow them to build more housing units that fit the character of the community as opposed to large apartment homes. These homes, which have been popular in certain urban communities, are smaller than 500 square feet, but as residents discussed, provide ample living space for older people or singles.
Kevin Doyle, a local resident who spoke in favor of tiny homes, said the city must first change its zoning to allow them.
“The zoning doesn’t allow it, period,” Doyle said. “We could be on the bleeding edge of this thing, and it could work really, really well.”
Residents also chimed in on increasing the city’s inclusionary housing mandate, a topic of discussion during the Measure T debates. Currently, the city requires that 10 percent of a development with more than 10 units be set aside for affordable housing, which is less than neighboring cities such as Solana Beach, which requires 15 percent.
Ehlers’ group suggested the city raise the percentage to at least 25 percent, and Peter Stern, a resident who was deeply involved with the Measure T opposition, suggested an even larger percentage, 50 percent.
“We give a stupid amount of lip service toward low income housing, but it doesn’t get built,” Stern said. “We all need to look at ourselves and ask if we are truly serious about low to moderate income housing.”
Several speakers and city staff, however, said the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which must certify a city’s housing plans, would not likely approve a plan with a 50 percent mandate because it would hinder the development of those units.
“The market won’t accept it,” Michael Andreen shouted from his seat in response to Stern’s proposal.
Stern also advocated for the city to eliminate a program that allows for developers to pay a fee in lieu of building the inclusionary housing. The concept was first brought up by Victoria Balentine, who at 25 years old, was probably the youngest person in attendance at the forum.
Balentine, who worked for an affordable housing developer, argued that the city needed to “get creative” in its pursuit of affordable housing, as one of the more traditional avenues — tax credit financing with public private partnerships — is in a state of instability as a result of the new presidential administration.
Balentine said that since the city doesn’t get large amounts of development, the in-lieu fee it receives from developers — which they can use to purchase affordable housing or land to develop it — takes longer to accumulate.
“Do we want to get very little from the in-lieu fee or do we want new housing now?” she said. “I would argue the latter.”
She also suggested that the city use money from its transient occupancy tax, or hotel tax, to spur its affordable housing efforts. She pointed to a recent effort by the city to collect taxes from vacation rentals that have operated under the radar, which could increase the pot of tax revenue the city could use for those purposes.