Del Mar considering affordable housing on fairgrounds

Editor’s note: In its quest to integrate affordable housing into the community, as mandated by state law and outlined in the city’s Community Plan goals, the City of Del Mar has several options on the table: rezoning in the north commercial zone, upgrading temporary housing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, condo conversion, offering more square footage as an incentive to build affordable “granny flats,” and possible modification to development standards in the downtown area. The following is the second in a series examining in more detail what these options would look like in Del Mar.

By Claire Harlin

When the horses races began in the 1930s at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, dormitory-style rooms were built in the backstretch to provide a place for horsemen and grooms to stay while caring for the horses. Measuring 10 to 12 square feet and sleeping two people per room, 273 temporary quarters still stand today, and while old and calling for constant attention to maintain living standards, fair officials say they’ve served their purpose.

“There are no kitchen facilities. They have restrooms, but not in the rooms; they’re in other parts of the building,” said fairgrounds general manager and CEO Tim Fennell. “We use them primarily during the races and the fair. That’s where the horses are kept and groups like 4-H, they lease those spots.”

But Del Mar city officials are considering a different vision for those dorm-style units, one that could involve upgrading them to make them livable enough to meet state housing standards and help the city fulfill its affordable housing priorities. Under requirements set by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), Del Mar must work 71 new units into the city framework, and 22 of those must accommodate the lowest income bracket — which is a challenge considering there’s hardly anywhere to build in Del Mar and property values are far from affordable.

Del Mar Councilmembers Lee Haydu and Don Mosier presented the idea to fair officials in a recent Community Relations Committee meeting, however, the idea is only in its infancy — and the conversation between the two entities preliminary.

“They have tossed out the idea, but we don’t know what this means yet,” said Fennell, adding a date to meet with Del Mar will likely be set after the holidays. “These are only temporary units and there is no proposal in our Master Plan for permanent housing … We’d love to see what the requirements are, but we haven’t been given anything yet. There are a lot of question marks. Like, what’s this going to look like?

And who’s going to pay for it?”

Del Mar planning manager Adam Birnbaum said the Del Mar Fairgrounds is the city’s largest employer, and it takes up 20 percent of the city’s land but does not provide any housing. About 20 to 25 percent of Del Mar’s residents, some of whom may work at the fairgrounds, qualify for affordable housing, so Birnbaum said the issue at hand falls on the question of whether there should be housing there for fair employees. But the bigger question, he said, is whether fair officials will work with the city to provide housing while helping the City of Del Mar get credit from HCD.

“They are an independent state agency with a Master Plan, so it would be up them how to implement that,” Birnbaum said.

Fennell said there are a number of fairgrounds employees who live hours away, so having housing on site would help those people in terms of time and fuel costs. But he said considering the decrease in the number of racing days from 43 to 37, as well as the decrease in number of horses being raised, fair officials are unsure whether to spend money on a site where fewer horses are being kept. He also said he’s unsure if the horse stable area, where most events are held, would be the best place to build housing, as there may be access and security issues, among other concerns.

“Bottom line is we haven’t anticipated having any longterm housing,” Fennell said, adding that the fairgrounds’ first order of business is widening the turf track. “If the City of Del Mar is interested in discussing how to help the city, we are open to those discussions, and if we can help and it makes sense then we’d love that, but I am not even sure if it’s feasible … If we had a blank checkbook we could do anything.”

Haydu said the recent fairgrounds Master Plan lawsuit took up a lot of time, but he is optimistic that this issue will get proper attention now that those legal issues are resolved.

“They really do want to work with us because some of their employees would fit that, and those units could be rented too,” she said, adding that she is familiar with the old housing that currently exists at the fair and thinks it could use an upgrade.

“They call it a jockey house, but I don’t think any jockey would stay there,” she said.

Bud Emerson, of the city’s Housing Corporation and Housing Element Ad-Hoc Committee, agreed that the housing in the backstretch is substandard, so the idea, while preliminary, would be a “win-win.”

“They understand they need to provide decent housing and right now it’s not decent,” he said.

In addition, the number of units that HCD has mandated Del Mar provide is partly driven by fact that the fairgrounds is the city’s biggest employer.

“They understand that they are part of the equation,” he said. “If they weren’t the biggest employer, we would have a lower number of units we’d have to deliver … We are just hoping fair board will follow through, and right now they seem receptive.”