Statement: “(Measure T) adds up to 4,000 high-density housing units,” the Committee Opposed to Encinitas Measure T wrote in a flier, a similar version of which was presented by former Planning Commissioner Bruce Ehlers at a forum on Oct. 16.
Analysis: Encinitas residents will be asked on Election Day to approve Measure T, a series of zoning changes that include higher residential densities, mixed-use development and taller buildings as part of a plan dubbed “At Home in Encinitas.”
It’s the city’s latest attempt to adopt what’s called a housing element, a plan required by state law that says every local government needs to demonstrate it will allow a certain amount of housing to be built at various income levels. Encinitas needs to show it could allow 1,093 lower-income homes to be built.
Most cities approve these changes via the City Council, but in 2013, as Encinitas was in the midst of creating a new housing element, voters passed Proposition A, which gave them the final say over any zoning change that requires increasing density.
Encinitans fashion theirs a small beach town, with too much big-city traffic already. Many also question the logic of trying to force affordable housing in a city that is clearly in high demand, and thus high-value. Opponents of the measure point out that while state law requires them to increase densities to make way for low-income housing, it doesn’t mandate that affordable housing be built. In Encinitas, they say, it’s likely the up-zone will just allow developers to build higher-density, market-rate homes.
“When you’re on the beach in Southern California, market forces will make it virtually impossible to have a market-based affordable unit,” said Bruce Ehlers, a former Encinitas planning commissioner.
Measure T opponents often say it’s just a giveaway to developers, and claim it will add 4,000 housing units. And that will ruin their community with buildings that are 48 feet high, and housing as dense as 41 units per acre. Proposition A set a height limit of 30 feet, or two stories ‒ whichever was lower ‒ and most of Encinitas is zoned around 11 units per acre.
The plan before voters calls for building at a minimum density of 20 units per acre that would add 1,987 homes, a buffer of 80 percent beyond the original goal of 1,093 lower-income homes, and a maximum density of 30 units per acre that, if built out, would result in 2,979 homes.
What we’re checking is Ehler’s and opponents’ claim that Measure T will lead to 4,000 new homes. There are two steps to get to that figure.
First, they get a base number of homes by multiplying the amount of land designated under the plan, roughly 101 acres, by the maximum density, 30 units per acre, to get 3,000 units.
That is unlikely to happen for a few reasons, say Measure T supporters.
“The state recognizes a developer cannot always develop up to the maximum density,” said former Planning Commissioner Kurt Groseclose. As much as developers may want to build the most homes as possible, factors like a site’s topography, groundwater and design constraints may limit that.
Some of the sites currently have commercial uses, and an even greater number are slated to have mixed-use development in At Home in Encinitas. By multiplying the number of acres available by the maximum density, Measure T opponents assume that the commercial requirements will not affect the ability to build up to the maximum residential density.
Even the sites that might be able to include more homes are not going to change anytime soon. Groseclose said that some of the sites have been renovated in recent years, and their owners probably wouldn’t immediately tear them down to build homes.
Statewide, it is common for property to be developed below the maximum density allowed, due to resistance from residents and local leaders, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
“Zoning laws often require developers to build housing at densities that are common elsewhere in the community, preventing developers from building at higher densities to counter high land costs. In addition, local communities sometimes pressure developers to reduce a project’s planned density during approval processes,” the agency says in a report.
Ehlers confirmed his conclusion that every site would be developed to the maximum density was based on his experiences on the Planning Commission, but ultimately he conceded it wasn’t likely that the land would be developed that densely.
“Is it going to come out at the absolute max? Probably not – it’ll fall in the range, but market forces will drive it up to what the zoning is,” he said.
Basing their claim on an admittedly high number is misleading to voters, because it disregards all the constraints that normally whittle down the number of homes built on a site.
Even accepting those assumptions about maximum density, as faulty as they are, only gets the number to 3,000 housing units. The Committee Opposed to Encinitas Measure T then uses that figure to derive an even higher number by applying the state’s density bonus program – separate from Measure T – to get 4,000 units, at 41 units per acre.
That’s even more misleading.
The so-called density bonus allows developers to build up to 35 percent denser than local zoning ordinances allow, if they include a certain amount of low-income units. It exists in every city in the state today, and can be applied to projects whether or not Measure T passes in November, but city planners cannot account for density bonus when they tally how many lower-income homes a zoning change will add.
The density bonus program is wildly unpopular in Encinitas, and the city has been sued multiple times by developers and the Building Industry Association for interpreting it differently than how the state intended.
Density bonus is a state-mandated program and local initiatives don’t affect how it’s used, but voters still sent a clear message that Encinitas is no place for dense development when they approved Prop. A.
The LAO report says density is one of the main ways to offset high land values in coastal California, by spreading the cost out among dozens of homes, as opposed to only a handful. Coupled with the need to be near mass transit and commercial areas, density is therefore necessary to build affordable housing.
Prop A. ties the task of providing the density necessary to build affordable and cheaper market-rate housing to a popular vote, where it’s bound to be unpopular. Measure T opponents know that upzoning is unpopular, whether through At Home in Encinitas or the density bonus, because some of them were the same people who wrote and helped pass Prop. A.
When asked if Prop. A made it easier or harder to build affordable housing, Ehlers would only say it made it harder to make the city denser.
“It’s certainly made it harder to increase zoning, or made it more in control for the people. Whether that ultimately makes it harder (to build affordable housing) per se … it makes it harder to increase the number of units constantly. Every planning cycle we’re going to be back at it. Now at least the voters will be aware of it, and intimately in control of it.”
Any housing element in Encinitas will allow homes to be built – at the very least 1,093, though planners have to aim significantly above that, because not every site will be developed up to the maximum, or at all.
At Home in Encinitas does make it easier for developers to sell or rent thousands of homes, but that is what the state is hoping to accomplish when it mandates that cities plan for growth in their housing elements.
A claim is labeled misleading when it takes an element of truth and badly distorts it or exaggerates it, giving a deceptive impression. The claim that Measure T adds 4,000 homes uses an unlikely, “worst-case” number that combines a separate program out of Encinitas’ hands. There will be more homes, but it’s highly unlikely it will be that many, and not all of them will be the result of Measure T.