Encinitas to promote program legalizing ‘granny flats’

The city of Encinitas is looking to count more accessory units — sometimes called “granny flats” — toward its affordable housing inventory.

At the Sept. 17 meeting, the council unanimously directed city staff to send out a citywide mailer next month promoting an amnesty program for accessory units.

“Get those units counted,” Mayor Kristin Gaspar said. “They’re here anyway.”

Accessory units are small homes that often share the same lot as a larger home — typically, a flat behind a house or an apartment above a detached garage.

They could play a larger role in the city’s housing element, a blueprint for growth across all income levels.

To pass a housing element, the city must determine where as many as 1,000 new units would be placed throughout Encinitas.

Granny flats — so named by Australian builders constructing smaller backyard dwellings for homeowners’ elderly relatives — are considered a source of affordable housing. So, if a large number were to be legalized, the city would have to plan for fewer units.

Resident Peter Stern said the city should prioritize the amnesty program. He said that was preferable to increasing density to accommodate the housing element units.

“Most people are unaware of the present amnesty program,” Stern said.

Planning Director Jeff Murphy said it’s unlikely that accessory units alone could fulfill the 1,000-unit requirement, but they could play a part.

The city’s housing element is slated for the November 2016 ballot.

If residents come forward and legalize their accessory units before the ballot item is made final, there’s a question as to whether they would count toward this housing element or the next one, according to Murphy.

After the meeting, Murphy said he hopes to determine which cycle by next week.

The department of Housing and Community Development requires cities to approve a housing element every eight years. During each cycle, cities are assigned state-mandated units based on population trends.

Regardless of whether units were to be applied to this housing element or the next cycle, council members said the mailer would allow the city to determine just how many units could be legalized.

“I don’t really care what cycle it fits in,” Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz said. “I think it speaks to the issue of trust. Our community wants to know that we have reached out to residents to try and convert as many of those illegal units as possible into affordable (units).”

To qualify for the amnesty program, units must have been built or converted before the city’s incorporation in 1986.

Among other requirements, the units must: meet building and fire codes; have a kitchen sink and bathroom; and be set aside in perpetuity for low-income residents.

“It is recognized that many illegal units which were constructed prior to the incorporation of the city provide affordable housing that may not otherwise be available,” the city’s policy states.

“Additionally, displacement of the tenants and finding alternate affordable housing may result in a hardship.”

In the next few months, the city will also consider relaxing the rules for granny flats so more can be recorded.

For instance, rather than require that units be reserved for low-income residents in perpetuity, the policy could be reduced to 20 years.

Council members said feedback from the mailer would help inform future city policies for granny flats.

“It would be a good way to solicit feedback as to what barriers exist,” Gaspar said. “It’s going to be hard as a council to write that policy and really know what might make people come forward.”

Soon, the city will roll out community workshops and online forums to collect input on the housing element.

The council and Planning Commission will hold a joint meeting Sept. 30 at the Encinitas Community and Senior Center to gain feedback on outreach materials.

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