Affordable housing — Let’s try something different and better

“Affordable housing” is a difficult social and economic problem. Many of us lucky enough to live in Encinitas would in theory like “affordable housing” to exist so that our grandparents and our children would have some inexpensive place to live. But no one wants more density next door. The last attempt at an affordable housing policy to meet state law, “Measure T” on the ballot, was a significant failure.  18,000 people voted it down.  And this was after 150 community meetings, much analysis and a 232-page thick education document sent to all voters.

Why? It was too complicated, it wasn’t explained well, and it attempted to do too much.  But its major flaw was the optional zoning that was proposed, called “At Home in Encinitas.”  The 15 sites selected by the Council were given the option but not the requirement of going to higher density (R-30) or staying with their current zoning.  This probably seemed like a clever solution when formulated, and respectful to existing property owners, but it was not a good idea.  One possible result included no sites converting so you got zero affordable housing.  Or all the sites could upzone in which case you got about 3,000 units, far more than the 1093 required.  There was no way to control the outcome between these two extremes.

Here’s a different way to get to the numbers we need for state law compliance, but no more, using an entirely different system:

1.   Establish a five-year program with an annual auction for 20 percent of the units needed.  Any property owner may participate as a bidder.

2.    Each interested owner bids a dollar amount for converting his property to R-30.  The bids are opened publicly and the winners declared.  Contingent bids are not allowed.

3.    The City may select or reject bids for any reason.  Any shortfall is added to the next year’s auction.  Any over-selection reduces the target for the following year.

4.    Fees collected are distributed equally to each voter living within a quarter mile of the site selected.  The City does not keep the fees.

5.    The site upzoning is valid for five years.  If a site is not developed as bid in five years, it reverts to the original zoning, loses its investment, and the shortfall is added to the subsequent year’s auction.

6. Prop A is amended to allow for this auction system.

7.    The actual development of the rezoned properties must comply with all existing codes and approval processes.

Why is this better?

1. The market selects the best sites, not city planners. Local political influence doesn’t matter.

2.    Only 1093 units are upzoned.  We get what we need to comply, and no more. No “buffer” is required.

3.    The selected sites will probably get built since there’s money at stake, so we actually get some affordable housing.

4.    Local neighbors may not like the idea of more density nearby, but receiving a share of the payment should quell some of this unhappiness.

Similar auction systems have been used in electric utility pollution control, very successfully, over the last 25 years.  Maybe it’s time to try an equivalent approach on affordable housing.

Robert Hemphill is an Encinitas resident, a member of the Coastal Mobility and Livability Working Group and a former business executive.


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