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Housing Element workshop covers potential sites, new programs, “encouraging” action

By SARA HALL

As cities across California grapple with state housing requirements, Laguna Beach is one of many working to update its Housing Element within the General Plan in order to comply with the mandates.

During a joint City Council and Planning Commission workshop on Tuesday (April 6), officials reviewed and provided input on the draft 6th Cycle Housing Element.

Discussion mostly revolved around potential sites, incentives for affordable housing, certain proposed programs (including a “zoning toolbox” and an Accessory Dwelling Unit amnesty program), and taking more substantial action instead of just “encouraging” development of affordable housing.

There are a lot of words like “encourage” and “pursue” ideas or programs in the draft document, Commissioner Steve Kellenberg said.

“I just wonder if there couldn’t be something more concrete,” he said, like developing an action plan or a list of steps of how to actually achieve these items, “rather than just kind of floating out there in the future somewhere.”

There’s been a lot of input into the Housing Element update, Commission Chair Susan Whitin said, and she’s excited to see the implementation tools included in the document.

“I’m very encouraged by this policy document, but it doesn’t present itself as a document that’s going to sit on the shelf,” Whitin said. “The tools for implementing housing development are within this document.”

Housing Element documents must be updated and certified by the state’s Housing and Community Development department every eight years. Laguna Beach previously adopted its Housing Element in 2014, which covered the planning cycle of 2013-2021. The 2021-2029 update must be certified by HCD by October 15.

Tuesday’s joint meeting was so council and commission members could provide comments and direction before the document’s final adoption, expected later this summer.

HCD determines the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which is 394 units for Laguna Beach’s current cycle. Cities are not obligated to build housing, but are required to identify opportunities for new housing and implement a plan to accommodate the units throughout the city, explained Acting Assistant Director So Kim.

Cities are required to show that they can meet the RHNA allocation through four areas of criteria: Current projects, expected projects, new sites, and Accessory Dwelling Units. 

Housing Element Scott Brashier Wide

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Photo by Scott Brashier

The Regional Housing Needs Assessment allocation for Laguna Beach’s current housing cycle is 394 units

The only current pipeline project that can be included in the update is Pyne Castle, at 770 Hillcrest Dr, which is purposing to add more than a dozen units to the existing condominium complex on a 2.35-acre parcel. The project is currently in the early stages of city review.

A second project (at 20412 Laguna Canyon Rd) listed in the draft document and the workshop staff report is no longer applicable because the building permit was issued during the previous cycle.

An expected project is at 350 Club Dr, at the Artisan Laguna Beach apartment complex off El Toro Road. The property owner has been in discussions with the city, expressing interest in developing 147 additional housing units, including the required 25 percent of affordable units (equal to 37 units). The proposed development would be on a portion (2.21 acres) of an existing apartment complex, yielding a density of 66 units per acre. This project was submitted on March 17 for initial zoning review. 

City staff has identified four new sites that comprise a total 4.6 acres with the potential to yield 166 units, Kim said.

The sites are zoned non-residential: Local business-professional, institutional, and local business district. However, according to city staff, affordable housing that is defined as “residential housing, special needs” is permitted in these zones with no density limit via the approval of a conditional use permit. The staff report explains that, based on current development trends, a potential density of 45 units per acre would be considered not only feasible, but a conservative estimate especially given that there is no density limit for the new Housing Element sites when affordable housing is built.

Potential new sites listed in the staff report: 340 St. Ann’s Dr, currently occupied by the Neighborhood Congregational Church; 21632 Wesley Dr, currently occupied by the Laguna Beach Methodist Church; 31778 Sunset Ave, vacant land owned by Mission Hospital; and 305-397 N Coast Hwy, which consists of seven contiguous properties. The sites are all developed with existing commercial uses and associated surface parking lots.

The Housing Element also assumes 15 ADU applications annually, which would yield 120 units over the planning period. 

Housing Element Scott Brashier Medium

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Photo by Scott Brashier

The Housing Element update includes some new programs and policies

The Housing Element identifies sites in order to meet RHNA requirements, but also acts as a guide for how the city approaches the overall housing issue. “This is also the vision of the city on how we want to promote housing in the city in general,” Kim said. “Whether that’s just limited to affordable housing, that’s a policy direction that the city needs to decide. And how far we want to go with these various actions is really up to the city.”

The draft document is divided into two sections: Goals and policies, and housing programs. Most of it is retained from the previous cycle’s document, with some minor updates and amendments. 

Among the updates are seven new policies: Encourage adaptive reuse, encourage school districts and churches to develop on their surplus properties, encourage work/live spaces, explore potential for pilot co-housing/co-living, encourage preservation/development of mixed-use projects, incentives for affordable housing, and affordable housing focus on seniors and other special needs households.

Updated housing programs include: Adequate sites and monitoring no net loss, a “zoning toolbox,” permit streamlining, downtown specific plan phase 2, ADUs, special needs housing, affordable housing partnerships, housing preservation and rehabilitation, affordable housing funding and programs, information, education and marketing, and fair housing.

The zoning toolbox commits the city to study potential amendments to the zoning code for the purpose of reducing regulatory barriers and provide a more flexible set of development guidelines, Kim said. 

Action items in the toolbox include: Amend zoning code to refer to state density bonus law, evaluate potential amendment to the R-3 zone to allow affordable housing as a permitted use, and explore flexible development standards for affordable housing (examples include incentives, reduce parking ratios, and potentially allowing additions above commercial properties).

“Incentives for affordable housing is not limited to financial incentives, we could look at development standards as a whole and see where there could be more flexibility if one wants to develop an affordable housing project,” Kim said.

There are huge challenges in actually getting affordable housing built, said Councilmember George Weiss. Projects needs third-party funding, either through the city or through a housing authority, and more needs to be done than just “encouraging” the developers.

Listing where people can go for grants is one thing, but the city could take action and create a grant program, funded by third-party, outside programs, Kellenberg suggested, referencing an earlier discussion by the Planning Commission. Specifically grant programs for ADU conversions that would commit to affordable housing would be helpful, he added.

“The thought is it may not be that much, in terms of total money, to have an impact,” Kellenberg said.

Whitin suggested a regional or state resource that provides information to developers about opportunities and what cities offer related to affordable housing.

“We’re a small town, perceived [as a] closed small town, and we need to get the word out on a much broader regional or state level to attract the right caliber of developer to come here and tackle these projects,” Whitin said.

All the municipalities are required to submit their housing element sites inventory to the state in a specific format, so the intention is to compile an exhaustive list, said housing consultant Veronica Tam.

Housing Element Michael Tanaka

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Photo by Michael Tanaka

An ADU amnesty program is in the works for the housing plan

Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf asked about bringing “illegal units out of the dark” and counting them for RHNA numbers.

The city can actually do that, Tam confirmed, as long as there is an amnesty program in place to facilitate and help people bring the units up to code.

“The bottom line is, as long as it was not permitted as a unit [and counted during a previous housing cycle] and you’re bringing it into code and permitting it as a housing unit, you do have the ability to count that towards your RHNA,” Tam said.

The ADU program (program five in the Housing Plan section) in the draft Housing Element document is meant to ease restrictions on ADUs and provide incentives for their development or preservation. 

An action item within the ADU program mentions amnesty specifically. The new ADU ordinance “provides opportunities for fee waivers and an amnesty provision to bring existing unpermitted units up to code standards,” the document reads.

The amnesty program is meant to defer the code enforcement matter up to five years for the property owner to bring the structure into compliance, Kim said. Aside from ADUs, there are some residential units in zones that don’t currently allow it, Kim said. But there is some concern that if an amnesty program allowed for legalization of all residential units that exist (rather than just ADUs, as the draft document is currently written) there’s a possibility that it could require a zoning and/or land use amendment, she said. 

Read the draft Housing Element document here.