Del Mar to seek public input on affordable housing issue

By Claire Harlin

After hearing extensive community concern and a frightening explanation by the City Attorney suggesting the city’s parks may have to be an affordable housing site consideration, the Del Mar City Council on Dec. 3 decided to step up its level of planning and public input before sending a draft housing element to the state.

The city continued with its Planning Commission meeting and public workshop on Dec. 5, but held off on making a decision at that time on a draft to send to the California Housing and Community Development Department (HCD).

In response to concern from the community that the city has stalled on the task of developing an affordable housing plan, officials said they will add a new workshop this month prior to Jan. 8, when the Planning Commission is set to sign off on the draft before sending it back to City Council for a Jan. 14 vote.

Because Del Mar is currently out of compliance — and has to come up with 71 new units, of which 22 must fall into the “affordable” bracket — it must show HCD in its housing element that a plan for affordable housing is in place, and that includes — at the least — figuring out where to put these units. Last month, the city introduced possible changes in zoning — such as modifying the central (downtown) or north commercial zones — that would allow this high-density.

“We don’t have to ensure that they will be built. We just have to provide the opportunity,” said Del Mar’s planning manager, Adam Birnbaum. “We have to have a document that shows the city can accommodate these 71 units over the next housing cycle, and those units have to accommodate different income levels.”

Out of those 71 units, 10 are “penalty units,” 22 must accommodate low or very low income residents and the rest must serve the moderate income range. To fulfill the moderate ones, the city can modify existing housing, through methods such as condominium conversion.

But the low-income units are difficult to achieve in Del Mar, with HCD suggesting they must be new construction built at 20 units per acre to be reasonably affordable. Finding a place for this type of construction in Del Mar presents some challenges. For example, the city is small and built out, and much of its land is environmentally sensitive or too expensive to make building low-cost units financially feasible. Homeowners are also concerned about their own property values, as well as their views and quality of life if a multi-story, high density residential building comes to their neighborhood.

Officials said the state authority is threatening to crack down hard on cities that aren’t up to standard, such as Del Mar, which currently has no affordable units but a population of which 25 percent would qualify for such housing. This 25 percent includes residents such as service workers, teachers and retirees with fixed incomes — people who are already in the “fabric of the community,” said Birnbaum.

When it comes to city’s current task of showing — within only several weeks — it has a plan in place, City Attorney Leslie Devaney said HCD is like a sleeping lion. She and Mayor Carl Hilliard both said they’ve witnessed the state entity threatening strict penalties, but Devaney said she is not sure how strict HCD will be. If the lion pounces, however, the carnage could be devastating, she said, and penalties could come in the form of financial repercussions, legal suit or mandating cities use their own public parks to develop affordable housing on.

“I know what the carnage can be … I just don’t know how sensitive that lion is,” Devaney said, adding that she is not aware of other out-of-compliance cities’ experiences approaching HCD.

Much discontent has been expressed from the community that the city should have dealt with the issue of affordable housing separately than in the Village Specific Plan (VSP), which failed at the polls as Prop J. In the VSP, affordable housing was just one element among an extensive amount of changes to the city’s development code, circulation, appearance and parking.

Del Mar resident and county supervisor Pam Slater-Price said it’s not fair that the city voted against Prop J, with the housing element being part of it, and is now making a hurried decision on the issue.

“It sounds like you had a job to do last year that you did not do,” she told the council on Dec. 3. “Postpone this until after the holidays so that you can work with the housing authority … The breathing fire dragons of Sacramento haven’t come down on us before and they aren’t going to now.”

Resident Dave Druker, who helped steer a campaign against Prop J during the past several months, said he believes the city is working in good faith and penalties are not going to be set.

“We don’t plan because of a litigation threat,” he said. “We plan because of what’s good for the community.”

The draft housing element document is available at