ENCINITAS — A recent article in The New York Times titled “The Pleasure and Pain of Being California, the World’s 5th-Largest Economy” examined the pros and cons that the state’s economic success has doled out to residents.
On one hand, California’s economy is booming with $6 billion sitting in its treasury coffers a mere seven years after being $27 billion in the red. However, as Times reporter Thomas Fuller writes, “it is hard to overlook the pain that prosperity has brought: traffic, property prices, homelessness.”
Encinitas is a case in point. As more money and economic opportunity flow into the city, so come the woes — from gridlocked traffic on I-5 and the Coast Highway, to soaring property and rent prices that defy affordability for many middle- and lower-income Californians, to a perceived uptick in homelessness.
Like many California communities, Encinitas is grappling with how to grow sensibly and address the changes that stem from increased prosperity and a larger population. But unlike most California communities, Encinitas remains out of compliance with the state’s housing laws, particularly as they pertain to affordable units.
California law via Gov’t Code §65583 requires cities to have a housing element, or plan, that “shall identify adequate sites for housing … and shall make adequate provision for the existing and projected needs of all economic segments of the community.”
Encinitas, by order of its Regional Housing Needs Allocation, must designate locations that could be developed or renovated to accommodate 1,286 units of very low- and low-income housing.
While the City Council recently approved a long-debated and frequently changed list of sites that could yield 1,685 units, the reality is that those sites represent potential locations. No projects are actually breaking ground there.
Only 66 affordable units have been built in Encinitas in the past six years. An additional 103 accessory dwelling units (aka granny flats) have been deed restricted for either low- or very low-income renters, slowly inching the city closer to its target.
Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear said in her State of the City Address that getting the city compliant with state housing laws “is our most pressing, urgent and critically important issue.” Through a process Blakespear has called a “messy compromise,” the city appears to be picking up momentum toward state compliance.
‘The face of affordable housing’
“You don’t know what it’s like to sit at City Hall during passionate and usually well-meaning discourse and have people stand there and explain why they don’t want people like you as their neighbors. You walk back to your car feeling battered.”
That is Lois Sunrich’s personal experience and her explanation for why the grassroots group she co-founded, Keys4Homes, tries to put a human face on the Encinitas residents and workers who would benefit from affordable housing.
Bob Kent, her co-founder explained, “They are seniors, pre-school teachers, eldercare workers, clerks, lifeguards, artists and more.”
Sunrich didn’t think she could afford to retire in Encinitas — her hometown since 1974 — so she went to Oregon to explore options. But as the reality of settling in a new state away from family, friends and the community she loved began to sink in, she felt depressed and panicked.
“I drove back to Encinitas in a cloud wondering ‘What am I going to do?’ Age 70, I discovered, was not an easy time to uproot.” She attended a Housing Element Task Force meeting in December 2017, thinking maybe she could find help there. But what she discovered was a much larger conversation and controversy over affordable housing.
Shortly afterward, a mutual friend introduced Sunrich to Bob Kent, an accountant and former chief financial officer of the Community Resource Center in Encinitas. The two formed Keys4Homes in January 2018.
As Sunrich sees it, “We stepped out in front of a parade that had already started.”
Keys4Homes advocates for affordable housing in Encinitas, with a short-term goal of seeing at least 80 affordable units built in the city by 2020.
Gita St. John, 75, recently heard about Keys4Homes and joined them in sharing her personal story at the May 9 City Council meeting. An Encinitas resident for more than 24 years, St. John is a retired nurse and also a veteran. She lost her condo in the downturn and has been renting since.
Her rent continues to go up, but her small pension and Social Security remain fixed. She recently developed a hip problem and can’t easily climb the stairs to her second-floor walkup.
When St. John discovered that a unit with elevator access had become vacant in the main building of her complex, she approached the manager with flowers, a doctor’s note and a friend for moral support.
That particular unit was not available for a transfer, St. John was told. But shortly after that, another apartment in the complex with elevator access was offered to her for a higher price of $1,375. St. John’s rent increased $100 in January and will go up another $125 if she moves into the more accessible apartment.
Because of her hip pain and the lack of available housing at lower prices, St. John said, “I’m going to have to pay it. I don’t have a choice. But how can people like me afford to keep paying more when we can no longer work?”
Like Sunrich, St. John does not want to be uprooted from the community where she volunteers and shares meaningful connections with her church and friends. But the future remains uncertain, with no easy solution in sight.
St. John holds out hope that the city will help her and others like her — whether they are retired or earning $15 to $20 an hour.
Workers priced out of the Encinitas housing market have to commute long distances, which further erodes their wages, lengthens their day and contributes to regional traffic jams.
Richard Boger, who also spoke in support of affordable housing and the “need to come together as a community” at the May 9 council meeting, expressed optimism for viable housing solutions in Encinitas. He said that shalom, a Hebrew salutation of peace, also means “mending the universe or mending the broken pieces.”
The look of the ‘projects’
Mayor Catherine Blakespear believes that “affordable housing should look appropriate to the community and fit in.”
She noted that some local residents seem to have an outdated impression, picturing the notorious “projects” built in the late 1940s to early ’60s that are often characterized as monolithic, crime-ridden and undesirable eyesores.
Contemporary affordable housing, by contrast, typically strives to be indistinguishable from other housing developments. It should be “integrated into the city,” Blakespear said.
Most affordable housing in Encinitas (whether built or planned) is incorporated into buildings with market-rate units. It’s common for 85 to 90 percent of the apartments to be rented at prices the market will bear, while 10 to 15 percent are designated affordable.
To allow for the density necessary to hit the various housing income targets, the city is considering rezoning sites to allow 25 to 30 units to be built in one net acre. One proposed development standard would permit builders to construct three stories, with a maximum height of 37 feet.
How to design and build new housing developments so that they blend into the fabric of Encinitas while still maintaining high density was the subject of a Community Roundtable on May 2 at City Hall.
After city-hired consultant Dave Barquist presented slides showing different potential roof styles, certain audience members expressed irritation.
One attendee said that the units “did not have to be palaces” and that the city should build the units to “satisfy the state” — no more, no less. Resident Donna Westbrook echoed that sentiment with the advice to “do it plain vanilla.”
Barquist disagreed, explaining, “We want to make sure that the quality, style and feel of these buildings are of equal quality to the rest of the community.”
Developer Nick Lee, who was also in attendance, said, “You don’t want housing projects that are earmarked as affordable.”
Good will vs. environmental concerns
Damien Mavis and his family own a vacant 5.2-acre parcel in Olivenhain capable of accommodating 100 to 150 units. They are willing to guarantee 50 percent affordable housing on the site, which far exceeds the typical development bids in Encinitas.
Why doesn’t the City Council leap at the offer?
The Mavis property shares a border with the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve.
Deputy Mayor Joe Mosca said at the council meeting on May 9 that the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy would oppose the site, and he had misgivings about developing near a wildlife preserve. “It would really have to be the last resort.”
Conservancy Executive Director Doug Gibson has stated that in order to protect wetlands habitat, which could be further diminished by sea-level rise, his organization would oppose any development projects on the Mavis parcel. The City Council’s decision to pass on the site gives the conservancy “breathing room for now,” Gibson said.
In response to the environmental objections, Mavis said in an interview, “Any of their concerns could be mitigated with thoughtful site design.”
Mavis sympathizes with the City Council’s predicament to choose appropriate sites and believes the Housing Element Task Force is “conscientious and doing their best.” He remains hopeful, however, that the project will eventually move forward and wants his property to be “a meaningful piece of the puzzle.”
Mavis’ proposal is to split the parcel, donating half to an organization such as Community Housing Works to build and manage affordable housing units. On the other half, the Mavis family would construct market-rate units. The two sides, however, would look the same.
Mavis works in land development and construction. His father built the Encinitas Country Day School on a different parcel of the same property. The school also faced opposition due to environmental concerns.
Mavis, who lives in San Luis Obispo and drives down to Encinitas frequently to attend the city’s housing-related meetings, said of his family, “We’ve always wanted to build affordable housing. It’s important to us from a social perspective. The opportunity came about, and it seemed like our property was an excellent fit.”
At the May 9 meeting, Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath said of the Mavis property, “I think we should keep it in the back of our mind because it is 50 percent affordable. … If it’s a good project that will demonstrate that affordable housing is compatible with our community, then we should absolutely be pursuing it because we have to show that we can do this.”