Reading Voice of San Diego’s recent article on housing in Encinitas, one is left with the distinct impression that local developers are doing their best to push through affordable housing, but Encinitas City Council members and residents are fighting every step of the way.

Quoting a representative of a local housing advocacy group about the importance of the density bonus law, the article claims that both City Council members and residents want to make the law impossible to use in Encinitas.

But the reality is not nearly so stark.

It is, of course, hard to quarrel with the premise of affordable housing. In a state and a county where housing costs consume a substantial portion of a household’s income, affordability is an important factor. But blaming the high cost of housing on residents who advocate for protections of their community and the environment is like blaming the customers who insist on a clean supermarket for the high cost of food – sure, there’s a relationship, but there are several other economic factors at play.

The state’s density bonus law allows private developers to build more homes on a property than city restrictions allow if they agree to build some low-income units. But the sad truth about the law is that it’s not really a vehicle that ensures what most of us would consider to be affordable housing. For one thing, the calculation of affordability is based on the median income in the immediate area, so when a project is proposed in a wealthy area, the affordable unit is suddenly not affordable the way most of us would think.

And to make matters worse, the law does not require leaving existing affordable units on the project site, so a project can be built that actually ends up reducing the amount of affordable housing.

The hard-fought battle over the high-density Desert Rose project in Encinitas proved that point. The project site is located in rural Olivenhain, accessed by a winding series of roads, and is bordered on two sides by open space with a creek running through it. The developer used the density-bonus law to double density by agreeing to build just one affordable unit, but since the site is located adjacent to Rancho Santa Fe, the so-called affordability of that one unit will not be something most lower-income earners can afford. Plus, the project will remove the existing affordable units on site that are associated with  existing on-site horse stables.

It should therefore come as no surprise that so many people in Encinitas have expressed concern about this and other proposed projects that appear to be more about lining developers’ pockets than improving people’s lives.

Our society can and should do more to ensure adequate housing for all income levels. And while the density-bonus law may have a good premise, its execution leaves much to be desired – it’s like telling someone they can drive twice the speed limit as long as they transport one lower-income rider. Sure, we want to ensure all income levels have adequate opportunities, but there are better ways to achieve these goals.

Everett DeLano is a partner with the Escondido law firm DeLano & DeLano. His commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.


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