The Encinitas City Council set up a task force to put together a proposed housing plan Monday night (February 6) in hopes of avoiding another legal defeat for failing to identify how to create almost 1100 affordable homes.
"This is one of the most important things we are going to do in our community," said city councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath. "We spent a lot of time talking about ‘no’ and we need to get to ‘yes.’”
Encinitas is the only city in the county that doesn't have a “housing element” — which is required by the state — in place. The city has been struggling with where and how to include homes for people with moderate and low incomes for more than five years and has twice been sued over not having such a plan in place. (The last housing element was approved in the 1990s.)
City officials settled both suits — and spent nearly $500,000 on legal fees — with agreements to adhere to state laws on density and affordable housing, but they have been struggling to translate those agreements into detailed plans that residents will accept.
The council has been put on notice by noted California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA ) litigator and Encinitas resident Marco Gonzalez that if they can't put one together soon, he has a client who is prepared to sue the city — and that previous plaintiffs DCM Properties and the Building Industry Association are also interested in fighting another round.
The housing element is required by law that is enforced by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. The city failed to finish the update due in 2013 and is looking at a 2017 deadline for the next review and submission.
The city's worst-case scenario is that the state can step in and take over land-use decisions.
"They're still trying to get the citizens to vote for this when state law preempts the ballot box," Gonzalez says. "The council is trying to create an argument that they're working on it, in case they end up in court again…. Lip service isn't leadership.”
At a workshop last week, the focus was on granny flats — termed “accessory units” in city planning parlance. In the past few years, the city has looked to accessory units as affordable housing. Indeed, the bulk of public ideas to achieve the required 1093 affordable homes at the workshop still came down to accessory units.
For this year's deadline, the city needs to identify where to put 1900 affordable homes (the goal for 2021), mixed in with the existing 25,429 homes counted by the U.S. Census. According to the city's lawyer, 260 accessory units are being counted toward that goal.
A program to let people make their accessory units legal — many were built without permits — netted a gain of one made-legal granny flat, Gonzalez said. But councilmembers and the public continued to push such housing as the way to create affordable homes and protect community character.
"We can bring existing accessory units out of the shadows and maybe take steps to encourage more accessory units," councilman Joe Mosca said. Another councilmember pointed out that the City of Piedmont used granny flats to meet their affordable-housing plan goals.
"Their [required number] was 42, not 1093," the city lawyer replied.
Gonzalez called the focus on accessory units misplaced and said that owners wouldn't want to participate when it meant they had to agree to deed restrictions for the next 50 years.
"What they're thinking is we don't actually want to provide real, new housing. We want to game the system," he said. "What they should be looking at is zoning changes that allow more units per acre and what people call 'affordability by design’: smaller units that would cost much less than large home on large lots…. The people who would live in these homes are our teachers, our police, and firefighters.”
In the end, the council created a task force of the mayor, vice mayor, and two residents: Bruce Ehlers and Kurt Groseclose, who led the campaigns for and against the last attempt to get voters to okay the city's affordable-housing strategy.
In November, voters rejected the city's attempt to get them to approve a plan that included identifying 13 potential sites to develop affordable housing and set parameters for the number of homes per acre and how tall buildings can be. Ehlers led the opposition and activist Bob Bonde led the campaign to pass Measure T.
After a two-and-a-half-hour discussion and a motion that was amended several times, the city council voted unanimously to create the task force. They did not reach agreement on whether the task force should rush to get a proposal on the ballot (which would have to be done by August) or whether they should take more time to get to what a councilman called "a no regrets" result. "Like a herd of wild turtles we are moving slowly toward our goal," mayor Catherine Blakespear said.