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California’s Most Housing-Averse City Has a Pro-Housing Mayor

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

When two reporters who host a housing-themed podcast sat down with Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear last fall, they went into the interview assuming she was an unapologetic NIMBY. She’s the mayor of Encinitas, after all, where housing projects and plans for more housing have been fought ferociously for years.

But when Blakespear talked about her city’s dire need for a housing plan, “Gimme Shelter” hosts Liam Dillon and Matt Levin were thrown for a loop.

Stunned, Levin asked Blakespear, “How do you keep getting elected?”

In recent months, Blakespear has continued to find herself at the center of polarizing debates on housing, homelessness and transportation.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the awkward position Blakespear is in better than the fact that she decided to sue some of her own residents as she maneuvers through a years-long fight over the city’s unique inability to comply with a state housing law requiring all cities and counties to adequately plan to meet the housing needs of everyone in their respective communities.

“I recognize that it would be better if this Council, with community consensus, could put together a housing plan and we could agree as a community that this was for the good and we could move forward with it,” she told VOSD in October. “But that is just not the reality in Encinitas.”

Some Encinitas residents fear that more housing and more density will ruin the city’s character.

Those fears helped Encinitas become the only city in San Diego County that for years did not have a state-approved housing plan identifying where new housing units could someday be built. A citizen’s initiative, Proposition A, is part of the reason.

Encinitas voters approved Proposition A in 2013. It requires a public vote for any changes to the city’s general plan, or specific plan or zoning ordinance that increases the currently allowed intensity or density. In other words, if you want to build something that is different than what zoning allows, the whole city needs to sign off. And if you want to change the zoning to allow for more building, the whole city needs to sign off.

Encinitas created a state-compliant housing element that, because of Prop. A, had to go before voters in November 2016. It failed. In 2018, the city put a similar measure on the ballot. It failed again.

Homes overlook San Elijo Lagoon / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Developers and low-income tenants sued the city for failing to comply with housing law. Late last year, a judge agreed that Prop. A was preventing the city from following the law, and suspended it.

Last February, Gov. Gavin Newsom summoned Blakespear and other leaders from cities across the state that were also out of compliance with state housing law to stress upon local officials the importance of doing their part to ease the state housing crisis.

Blakespear wrote in a newsletter [1] that officials were compelled to go to court by the state as a condition of getting the latest housing plan certified. The city needed to name someone as a defendant, so they chose “Preserve Prop. A,” the group of residents who conceived the initiative and have fought to keep it in place.

Everett Delano, the group’s attorney who helped write Prop. A, described the lawsuit as “an affront” to democracy and said the city was using its own residents as scapegoats. “I think the purpose of the lawsuit is to harass its citizens,” he told VOSD in October.

He said recently that there’s no news on the lawsuit and as far as he knows, the case was never served on the group or any of its members. On Jan. 6, the city requested a 60-day extension to serve so it could continue discussions and determine who should be named in the action, according to court records [2].

With Prop. A set aside, Encinitas passed a state-approved housing element [3] for the first time in years. The city’s next housing plan is due in 2021.

Blakespear told VOSD that going without a plan was a “black eye” on the city. “And to be flouting that to somehow have that be a mark of honor. I don’t see that that way at all,” Blakespear said in reference to residents who consistently oppose housing growth in the community. “To me it was an embarrassment.”

Ed McFadd, co-chair of the Encinitas and North Coast Democratic Club’s political action committee, identified the housing element as one of Blakespear’s most difficult challenges.

“When Lisa Shaffer was mayor, she wrestled with that for her term and couldn’t get that through,” McFadd said. “Now we have a housing element and I think that’s thanks to Blakespear. It’s something she has achieved but had strong opposition to.”

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Encinitas residents re-elected Blakespear with an overwhelming 83 percent of the vote in November 2018.

San Diego Democratic Party Chair William Rodriguez-Kennedy said Blakespear is politically courageous – something the party needs more of.

“She does things because it’s the right thing to do … and she’s able to survive on the home front,” he said.

Rodriguez-Kennedy was acknowledging that although Blakespear’s views on housing and homelessness are popular within the party and the broader San Diego region, they’re not necessarily the norm in Encinitas. Rodriguez-Kennedy said he doesn’t know many people who don’t like Blakespear.

Yet people who don’t like Blakespear certainly exist in Encinitas. That’s been driven home in recent weeks as a debate over a safe parking program in town stirred up major controversy and distrust in Blakespear and the City Council.

In November, Blakespear and the Council took steps toward creating a safe parking program for homeless residents in North County living in their cars.

Residents upset by the plan collected more than 4,000 signatures in a Change.org petition [4] in an attempt to stop the City Council from signing a lease agreement for the lot.

Despite pushback from residents angry and fearful over the plan, the Council gave it a final stamp of approval earlier this month. The city will lease a 67-acre space owned by the nonprofit Leichtag Foundation, where 25 cars will be allowed to park. Another nonprofit, Jewish Family Service, will run the program.

It’s the latest instance of Blakespear pushing for a housing solution in the face of fierce opposition from concerned Encinitas residents.

Blakespear acknowledged the intense community scrutiny in Encinitas in an October interview. “Being the mayor is so exposed … it’s a very high-scrutiny community,” she said.

More than one resident at a forum on the lot said that if Blakespear voted for plan, they wouldn’t vote to re-elect her.

“Regardless of what you do, you are going to have to find a way to repair that trust because you have a community in disarray,” one resident said at a city council meeting this month.

Stew Duncan, an Encinitas resident and member of the recently formed group called the North County Citizens Coalition, was among those who said the lot would be a deciding factor in whether he voted for Blakespear.

“A lot of citizens had no reason to dislike Blakespear when she was elected, but now there’s a reason to.” Duncan said. “I think we’re going to see a huge voter turnout and three Council members are going to be replaced with people who care about residents and not just special interests.”

He clarified that Jewish Family Service and the Leichtag Foundation, the two nonprofit groups hosting and running the lot, are the special interests.

At the meeting in which the Council gave its final approval of the lot, Cardiff resident Julie Thunder announced she plans to challenge Blakespear for mayor. Thunder was outspoken in her position against the homeless parking lot. At a recent forum, Thunder whipped up a crowd of residents [5] by saying city leaders provided no advanced notice and no community forums to address the lot prior to the November City Council meeting.

Another resident, Matt Wheeler, echoed that concern and said he didn’t appreciate that Blakespear and the Council negotiated with the nonprofits before notifying the public.

“I don’t think she cares what the city thinks. I think she thinks she knows better than everybody else,” Wheeler said.

Blakespear countered in an email to VOSD that the residents are essentially saying the Council should have held forums on a proposal before one even existed. Once Jewish Family Service and the Leichtag Foundation came to the city with a plan, Blakespear said, the Council made a point of taking more time to allow for public vetting.

“In fact there was so much complexity in the negotiation, which had not started until the Council gave direction, that the staff needed to postpone the ultimate decision until late January to allow more time to work out the details of a final proposed plan,” Blakespear wrote.

Councilman Tony Kranz was the only Council member to vote against the lot.

Kranz told VOSD in December he and Blakespear have a lot of similarities in how they approach the job, and in those cases in which they disagree, they’ve been able to do so without being “disagreeable.”

Councilwoman Jody Hubbard said a lot wouldn’t get done in town without a mayor like Blakespear.

“It’s one thing to talk about putting a housing element together or improving biking and walking infrastructure or really move people in all ways and tackle homelessness,” Hubbard said. “But to get to the end result it takes a pretty dedicated mayor who is not afraid of controversy.”

Deputy Mayor Kellie Shay Hinze agreed.

“When you’re a leader, you have to represent the ones that aren’t the loudest,” Hinze told VOSD in December. “You have to represent the ones that are sometimes the most stigmatized, vulnerable, quiet people.”

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Blakespear told VOSD she will be running for re-election in 2020 and doesn’t have her sights set on higher office anytime soon. She does, however, hope to become chair of the board of directors of SANDAG, the regional transportation agency.

Blakespear has become perhaps the agency’s most effective advocate for its pro-transit vision despite hailing from North County, where residents are overwhelmingly focused on decreasing the traffic they face on highways, not reimagining the entire transportation system.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata said it’s hard to move conversations forward at SANDAG, but that Blakespear is one of the few people who make it happen and he thinks highly of her leadership.

At a November SANDAG board meeting, Blakespear voted in favor of the agency’s contested Regional Housing Needs Allocation methodology. The formula determines the number of homes that need to be planned for in each city based on population growth expectations and prioritizes housing in cities near local jobs and transit hubs. The state has allocated more than 171,000 homes to the San Diego region.

Blakespear helped create the formula, so her “yes” vote wasn’t a surprise, but it did pit her against other North County mayors. SANDAG will assign Encinitas 1,554 homes to build under the formula.

Solana Beach Mayor David Zito and Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara, for example, called the methodology flawed.

SANDAG funded and developed a mixed-use trail for walkers, runners and cyclists called the Cardiff Rail Trail in Encinitas under Blakespear’s leadership last year. The project was highly contested by Encinitas residents.

She’s supported bike infrastructure in other parts of the county, too. Last month, the SANDAG board approved a $90 million project to create 16 bike lanes running through the North Park and Mid-City San Diego neighborhoods in a weighted vote.

Supporters of the project said the new lanes will encourage people to use their bikes instead of cars, resulting in a reduction of greenhouse gases. Opponents like County Board Supervisor Jim Desmond raised concerns about the cost of the project. Desmond said at a press conference that the SANDAG board should be focused on fixing our roads and infrastructure.

Blakespear highlighted the success of the Cardiff Rail Trail in her comments at the Jan. 10 board meeting and voted to approve the project.

“I think it’s important to remember that these bike projects, we call them bike projects, but they’re really a reconsideration of public space and how people get around,” she said.

Board members from neighboring North County cities Escondido, Oceanside, Poway, San Marcos and Vista voted against it.

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When the “Gimme Shelter” podcast hosts asked Blakespear how she managed to get elected in Encinitas despite not being staunchly opposed to new housing, it was mostly a joking rhetorical question.

But she answered anyway, and in doing so, turned the standard arguments about protecting “community character” that have for years been wielded by Encinitas residents opposed to housing development on their head.

“I’m a progressive person who’s very environmentally oriented, and I’m outdoorsy and sporty and young with a family,” Blakespear said. “And I think all of those things resonate for a lot of people in the city.”