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Encinitas agrees to incentivize ‘granny flat’ amnesty

Residents with illegal accessory units — sometimes called “granny flats” — will have more reason next year to come forward and bring them up to code.

In the name of counting granny flats toward the city’s housing inventory, the Encinitas City Council on Nov. 19 approved a one-year program starting in January that will allow more homeowners to legalize their units.

Accessory units are small homes that often share the same lot as a larger home — typically a flat behind a house. They also include garages converted into living spaces.

Currently, to be eligible for amnesty, units must have been built before the city’s incorporation in 1986. But by way of a 3-2 council vote, the yearlong program will accept granny flats constructed prior to 2004.

“In the interest of maximizing participation, I want to be as welcoming as possible,” Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz said.

Councilmembers Teresa Barth and Lisa Shaffer voted against the motion. They said accepting accessory units after city incorporation rewards those who didn’t get the necessary permits.

“The people who have done it the right way will sit there thinking, ‘Why did I bother to go through the process?’” Shaffer said.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar said she doesn’t like rewarding “bad behavior.” Nonetheless, she added, the need to update the housing element trumps that concern.

Due to go to a public vote November 2016, the housing element seeks to rezone select sites to accommodate 1,300 state-mandated units. The council has taken an interest in granny flats because recording them could mean the city has to plan for fewer housing element units.

“We don’t want to wait around, because obviously we want to count these units today,” Gaspar said.

Additionally, the council voted unanimously to ease the restriction that legalized accessory units be reserved for low-income residents in perpetuity. Under the program, it will be 20 years. After that, the units can be rented at market rate.

“That’s an extremely good deal considering it’s in perpetuity right now,” Gaspar said.

The city will send out a mailer next month at a cost of $8,700 to promote the program’s January launch. If the program is especially popular, additional staff hours might be necessary to process permits, City Manager Gus Vina said.

Legalizing a granny flat also requires meeting current fire and building codes.

To enroll in the program, residents will have to turn in an application and obtain the necessary permits before 2016. After that, the city will revert back to the current amnesty rules for granny flats.

As another incentive, the council voted 3-2 to waive the $900 application fee for low-income property owners.

Gaspar and Councilman Mark Muir said they supported scrapping the fee entirely. Shaffer countered that the city shouldn’t subsidize fees for those “who aren’t in need.”

The city will continue to crack down on unpermitted units in response to neighbor complaints, it was decided. Council agreed it would be intrusive for staff to proactively sweep the city for illegal units and force compliance.

And councilmembers supported bringing back an agenda item to consider relaxing setback requirements for new granny flats reserved for low-income residents.

A handful of speakers said the public would be on board with an expanded amnesty program since it could mean less rezoning for the housing element.

“Bottom line: Make an amnesty program that’s user-friendly and fear free,” Susan Turney said.

City Planning Director Jeff Murphy said that the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) has indicated it will count the accessory units toward the housing element, but won’t confirm until the city submits a draft this spring.

And there’s also question of whether the granny flats logged as part of the program could be applied toward this current housing element or the next cycle, city staff noted.

Even if recorded, Murphy said accessory units alone couldn’t satisfy housing element numbers. That’s because the city must show HCD it’s planning a range of dwellings for everyone from young professionals to seniors, he added.

Along similar lines, Barth said accessory units can’t fulfill the city’s need for diverse housing.

“This cannot and is not the end-all, be-all to our needs,” Barth said.


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