Encinitas coastline / Photo via Shutterstock

Encinitas is behind on its affordable housing numbers, and some say it’s because of poor planning. 

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Encinitas hasn’t kept up with the affordable housing units it promised in its Housing Element. This week, I wanted to dive further into why that is. 

Background: A Housing Element is a plan outlining how a city can accommodate enough new housing to meet its population’s needs. It’s required by state law. 

Encinitas has to make way for 838 low-income units, according to its approved plan. But once all pending housing projects are approved, the city will be behind on these units by 55 to 148 units, depending on how those projects sort out.  

When crafting its Housing Element, the city identified 15 sites, or parcels of land, available and suitable for residential development. Those sites would offer affordable housing.  

But Encinitas doesn’t have enough sites left in its Housing Element to accommodate all the low-income units the state said it needed to plan for.  

To stay in compliance with the state’s No Net Loss law – which says the assumptions cities make in their Housing Elements must reflect what gets built – Encinitas now has to identify new sites not listed in its Housing Element, that could be turned into low-income housing.  

The city is currently considering a site outside of the Housing Element for a 100 percent affordable housing project. 

How did the city get here? Some residents argue that the problem goes back to how the city created its Housing Element in the first place.  

When the city first identified the 15 sites for low-income housing it assumed 100 percent affordability on all of them, meaning it predicted that all 15 sites would be made up entirely of low-income units.  

Of the 15 sites, none of them have been 100 percent affordable so far. 

“Twelve of the 15 sites have submitted project applications, of which seven have been approved, with all proposing at least 20 percent affordable, consistent with the city’s inclusionary requirements,” Assistant City Manager Jennifer Campbell said in an email. 

Inclusionary housing requires developers to set aside a certain number of units as low-income. Cities implement these policies to ensure that affordable housing units are produced along with market-rate units. 

In Encinitas, the inclusionary housing requirement is 15 percent for very low-income and 20 percent for low-income units. 

Because developers aren’t obligated to create more affordable housing than is required of them by this policy, all the sites approved so far have fallen short of 100 percent affordability by a lot. 

The three remaining sites also assume 100 percent affordability, but based on how the other 12 units have panned out, these remaining sites aren’t likely to reach that threshold.  

And because of the Housing Accountability Act, Encinitas can’t deny a project unless it has a negative impact on health or safety or is inconsistent with zoning and land use laws.   

This means Encinitas can’t deny a project because it has fewer low-income units than the city hoped for to satisfy its Housing Element, and it also can’t require a developer to increase the number of low-income units.  

And though Encinitas was required to identify sites available for 838 low-income units, the Housing Element had capacity for 1,696 lower income units, giving it a buffer of 858 units. 

If a project has fewer low-income units than were projected or fewer total units than are shown in the Housing Element, buffers provide cities with the flexibility to use other sites in the Housing Element to make up the difference.  

Once the five pending projects are approved, however, the city will have exhausted that buffer. 

Barbara Kautz, the city’s attorney, said during a March City Council meeting that Encinitas’ buffer was larger than any other city she’s worked with. But it still isn’t large enough to prevent Encinitas’ affordable housing deficit.  

“The city assumes 100 percent until a project is approved, then it says, ‘oh look, we’re only going to get 15, we’re short.’ Then they dig into the buffer, the buffer’s gone, and now we’re having a no net loss discussion,” said Susan Turney, a longtime Encinitas resident and former City Council candidate. 

Turney believes the city wasn’t upfront with residents when it originally made its assumptions in its Housing Element about how many sites it would need to achieve its required affordable housing numbers given the city’s current inclusionary policy. 

She also believes the inclusionary requirement should be raised to as high as 50 percent to require developers to create more low-income units, a number recommended by the Encinitas Planning Commission in 2021. 

Encinitas Mayor Tony Kranz said it’s not that simple – cities have to prove that their inclusionary requirements are economically feasible, and the state’s Department of Housing determined 50 percent was not economically feasible for Encinitas. 

He added that the city is working toward increasing that inclusionary requirement to a more feasible percentage. 

Kranz also said that identifying more sites for low-income units would require more upzoning. In Encinitas, upzoning requires approval by voters at the ballot box, which has proved to be difficult in the past. 

Encinitas voters blocked Housing Element up-zoning twice, rejecting Measure T in 2016 and Measure U in 2018, refusing the 15 sites the city identified. A judge had to step in and allow the city to bypass voters and move forward with those sites to comply with state law. 

It’s still unclear if even more sites outside of the Housing Element will need to be identified for the city to meet its affordable housing requirements. 

In Other News 

Tigist Layne is Voice of San Diego's north county reporter. Contact her directly at tigist.layne@voiceofsandiego.org...

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