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North County Report: Encinitas' Other Half Speaks Out

An Army veteran struggling to afford rent in Encinitas says she finds the insinuation from wealthy residents that low-income people like her, living in denser developments, would disrupt otherwise charming neighborhoods offensive and demeaning.

Homes overlook San Elijo Lagoon. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Judgment day in Encinitas is nigh.

The coastal city has the lowest percentage of multifamily housing units in San Diego County, and for years it’s been defying California law by failing to craft a legally acceptable housing plan.

City law requires that residents vote on major land-use changes, and twice the voters have rejected plans that identify sites for possible affordable housing development. Measure U, the latest attempt at a housing plan, failed last month by about 1,800 votes, or 6 percent of the ballots cast.

Now the San Diego Superior Court is preparing to intervene. A judge next week is likely to suspend the Encinitas law that gives voters veto power over a housing plan. The only question is how long the city law might remain sidelined. It’s also unclear what plan the judge will put in place.

One thing’s for sure: The homeowners who killed housing plans in 2016 and 2018 aren’t happy that a judge is about to circumvent the will of Encinitas voters.

“Too bad,” said Gita St. John.

She’s one of several people I’ve met in recent weeks who can’t find housing in Encinitas or who’s on the verge of being priced out of a community she’s called home for decades.

Originally from Egypt, St. John served in the U.S. Army and worked as a nurse and community college instructor. She moved to Encinitas in the 1990s after separating from her husband and watched as the rental market grew slowly, then quickly in more recent years.

Data compiled by the California Department of Housing and Community backs up her impression: While the income earned by tenants has decreased since 2000, rents have risen more than 20 percent.

St. John’s social life is in Encinitas — her friends and her church. At 76, she’s contemplating a job in retail so she can remain in her apartment, but such a job would be physically taxing.

The term “affordable” has a different meaning in different places, because it depends largely on the median income of the area and the number of people in one’s household. For instance, a family of four in Encinitas that wanted to qualify for an affordable apartment would need to earn less than $77,000. More than a third of Encinitas households meet that definition.

Housing experts speak often of the 30 percent rule. Spending any more of one’s income on rent is considered a red flag, because it suggests that one will have difficulty paying other bills and for emergencies as they arise.

St. John lives in an Encinitas apartment complex that caters to seniors. Still, she spends nearly 60 percent of her income — which comes from a small military pension and Social Security — on rent. According to the federal government, she is “severely” burdened by the cost of housing.

Opponents of the last two housing plans in Encinitas have argued that the new buildings would be too tall and too closely bunched together, threatening the look and feel of their communities. They’ve also accused city officials of favoring developers at every opportunity, characterizing the public process as a charade.

Developers, they believe, will find ways to get around the actual construction of affordable housing. Some, as the Coast News reports, propose that the city develop a publicly owned site with 100 percent affordable units and eliminate a financial loophole.

Others have argued that Proposition A, the local law giving Encinitas residents veto power over land-use decisions, was never intended to prevent the city from sending a housing plan to Sacramento. But whatever the intent of Prop. A, the effect is clear. The city is out of compliance, and Superior Court Judge Ronald F. Frazier has cited the local law as the source of the ongoing conflict.

Gita St. John, a resident of Encinitas for 24 years. / Photo by Jesse Marx

St. John has found the debate — and the insinuation that low-income people like her, living in denser developments, would disrupt otherwise charming neighborhoods — offensive and demeaning.

She knows, in any case, that she’s among the lucky to already have an apartment in Encinitas, because there are plenty of people who travel long distances to serve food and coffee and trim trees and clean the insides of other people’s houses.

“They don’t come down from heaven,” St. John said.

But she’s also not naive. She imagines that the tipping point in a place like Encinitas will come when the children of homeowners grow up and take a closer look at the real estate market. When the next generation comes of age, the city will resemble a pressure cooker, she said. “It’s going to begin whistling.”

Possibly sooner than she thinks.

Mahsa Olamai, a 27-year-old ER technician at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, told me she’s been struggling to find an apartment, and many of her coworkers have landed in East County. Since graduating from college three years ago, she’s been living with her mother, Naimeh Woodward, who runs a nonprofit that works with artists. The family moved to Encinitas in 2005.

Woodward said she appreciates the small-town charm. She’s also happy having her daughter under the same roof, but she wants Olamai to be independent.

“All my friends have the same dilemma,” Woodward said. “All the kids are grown and they can’t afford to live here.”

County Sued Over Airport Expansion That Isn’t Really an Expansion by a Group With Obscure Membership

Encinitas is not the only city with a law on the books requiring voter approval for major changes to the community.

A Carlsbad law going back to the 1980s gives voters a say in any expansions of the McClellan-Palomar Airport, which resides within the city but is managed by San Diego County.

The county wants to lengthen the airport’s only runway by up to 800 feet and add a new safety system. But as the Union-Tribune has noted, both the county and a consultant hired by the city don’t believe the improvements constitute an expansion because the airport’s boundaries won’t change.

A group calling itself Citizens for a Friendly Airport filed suit last week, alleging that San Diego County officials violated California environmental law while updating the airport’s master plan by not being forthcoming about what the project is actually intended to do: take pressure off the San Diego International Airport.

The group is represented by Cory Briggs, who regularly sues governments and developers. In this case, Citizens for a Friendly Airport is led by Hope Nelson. I asked her twice how many people make up the group and whether they live in Carlsbad. She did not respond.

Carlsbad has also threatened to sue the county over the airport’s master plan update. The City Council voted 3-2 in October to give staff the ability to file litigation. Nothing has been filed yet.

Solana Beach Energy Program Off to a Mixed Start

In a few weeks, the mayor of San Diego is expected to send the City Council a formal plan to create a publicly run energy program, otherwise known as community choice aggregation, or CCA. That’s a big deal.

But I bring it up here because my colleague Ry Rivard took the opportunity to explain this week how Solana Beach’s own CCA — the first in the region and among more than a dozen across the state — works. (Hint: lots of consultants.)

Technically, Solana Beach formed a nonprofit to handle the purchasing of energy and compete with San Diego Gas & Electric. Although the city’s 7,000 electricity customers have saved about $200,000 since June, officials are expecting to lose about $350,000 over the next three years.

Solana Beach City Councilman Peter Zahn assured 10News that overall the energy program is healthy. It’s still paying off expenses from the launch, he said.

In Other News

  • The board that governs SANDAG will have new leadership next year. Both the chair and vice chair are North County mayors and belong to different political parties. (KPBS)
  • Newly elected Rep. Mike Levin threw his support behind the Green New Deal, a proposed economic and environmental stimulus package modeled off legislation in the 1930s to pull the country out of severe recession. This time around, progressives are pledging to create millions of nationally funded jobs and invest in green businesses and research, as well as make democratic and financial reforms. (ThinkProgress)
  • More than 40 business owners in Oceanside have petitioned city officials to reconsider Brother Benno’s conditional use permit. The organization provides food, clothing and other services to the city’s growing homeless population and is routinely blamed for property damage and theft in the area. (The Coast News)
  • The Fallbrook Union High School District superintendent has agreed to be fired so he can get out of his contract and collect a $242,000 severance before three of his critics assume power on the Board of Trustees. (Union-Tribune)
  • County voters will likely be asked in March 2020 to reverse the Board of Supervisors’ approval of a proposed 2,135-home project in the hills north of Escondido known as Newland Sierra. The Safari Highlands Ranch, a 550-unit luxury home project in the San Pasqual Valley, is also up in the air with the election of new Escondido officials. (Union-Tribune)
  • Recreation officials are proposing that a natural field jointly owned by the city of San Diego and the Del Mar Union School District be replaced with synthetic turf and that the contract go to FieldTurf, according to the Del Mar Times. The company sold defective products for years but continues to get business from schools and public agencies locally.
  • Thing I learned this week: Solana Beach has a committee that presides over the obstructed views that new development can create and seeks practical solutions. That committee gave its (reluctant) blessing to the Solana Highlands revitalization project, which is going to create 260 units, including 32 for low-income seniors. (The Coast News)
  • A retired firefighter is teaching other first responders how to meditate — and challenging a stigma in the process. (Del Mar Times)
  • Two Sheriff’s deputies are facing criminal charges after they were caught on videotape punching a man on the ground and shoving his father. Charges against police officers and deputies accused of assaulting people in custody are rare. (Union-Tribune)
  • David Peters is known nationally as a “virtuoso” in construction-defect litigation. He’s also at war with his former law partners, who’ve accused him of gross financial abuse. (The Coast News)
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