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Encinitas council sets new low-income housing standards for developers

Encinitas welcoming sign.
(Charlie Neuman)

Plan put forward by consultant picked over planning commissioners’ stricter proposal

Encinitas will adopt a consultant’s recommendation for a new building requirement for low-income housing, instead of a stricter standard suggested by the city’s planning commissioners.

The City Council unanimously backed the consultant’s proposal Wednesday, June 23, saying it would allow the city to avoid yet-another battle with state housing officials.

“The last thing we want to do is to be marching into another lawsuit over this,” Mayor Catherine Blakespear said as she explained her support for the consultant’s proposal.

Encinitas was in conflict with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development for years over its failure to have a valid Housing Element — a state-required plan that spells out how a city proposes to accommodate future housing growth, particularly housing for low-income people.

The Encinitas Housing Element plan that covers the 2013-2021 period wasn’t adopted by the council until 2019 and that vote came after multiple building industry lawsuits, threats of legal action by the state and two failed ballot measures. In April, the City Council adopted an update of that plan in order to meet the current housing planning cycle requirements, but conflict remains over various Encinitas housing-related ordinances.

One unresolved issue has been how to handle what’s termed “inclusionary” housing projects — ones that grant developers certain incentives, such as easing some building requirements or allowing higher-density projects, in exchange for the developers agreeing to include some low-income housing in their developments.

Encinitas currently requires developers to set aside 15 percent of their projects for low-income households, or 10 percent for very low ones in order to qualify for some special incentives. (Using the county’s current area median income rate of $95,100, a single person with an income of $67,900 would be considered as low income and income of $50,940 would be considered very low.)

City officials recently have sought to increase the 10 percent and 15 percent inclusionary figures, arguing that developers ought to be required to set aside more units for low-income people given the value of the incentives the city gives them in exchange. A city-hired consulting company, Keyser Marston Associates, Inc, recently conducted a development feasibility analysis and concluded that development projects in Encinitas that receive special city permission to put 30 units on an acre would still pencil out even if their low-income housing requirements were increased by 5 percent.

That new standard, which the council agreed to adopt Wednesday, June 23, raises the inclusionary requirement to 20 percent for low-income units, or 15 percent for very low-income units.

In May, a majority of the city’s planning commissioners argued this standard didn’t go far enough and recommended requiring developers to set aside 25 percent for both low-income and very low-income people. As he made the case for this, Commissioner Kevin Doyle produced his own rough analysis of developer expenses and profits. He concluded that Keyser Marston’s analysis greatly understated the profits that developers stand to gain from high-density housing projects even with a higher inclusionary standard.

On Wednesday, June 23, council members said the Keyser Marston company was recognized in the industry for its expertise and said they wanted to have a standard that could be defended in court.

“We need to have what (the state housing department) will support,” Blakespear said.

Meanwhile, an attorney representing the Building Industry Association of San Diego County recently informed the city in a six-page letter that both the Keyser Marston proposal and the Planning Commission one ought to be rejected, and the council should leave things as they are.

“To do otherwise only paints a picture of the City stifling, rather than stimulating, progress in the production of housing on the very sites it selected for this purpose,” attorney Timothy Hutton wrote.

Before the council vote, several area low-income housing advocates told the council that they could support the consulting company’s recommendation, saying they were concerned that if the city went for the higher standard, no low -income housing would be built.

— Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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