Coronado Is Flouting California's New Affordable Housing Requirements
It’s just past 7 a.m. on a recent Friday when Evangelina Preciado kisses her 10-year-old son, Ricardo, as she gets ready to leave for her job in Coronado.
"I love this place," Preciado said of the city where she works. "This is beautiful, it's quiet, clean, we have the beach. So everything is awesome here."
Coronado is also known for its low crime, good schools and parks. But Preciado's job as a housekeeping lead at the Hotel Del Coronado doesn't pay nearly enough for her to live on the island, where a two-bedroom home for less than $3,000 per month is a steal and the typical home is worth more than $2 million, according to Zillow.
Instead, Preciado lives with her husband and three children in a small mobile home in Chula Vista. She said as soon as she finishes work, she no longer feels welcome in Coronado.
"This is like my second home, because I pass more hours on the island than my home," Preciado said. "But I cannot live here. I just come and work, and I have to go back."
Preciado's plight is emblematic of a much larger problem in Coronado and across California. Many of the state’s most desirable cities have largely failed to plan for adequate housing to accommodate population and job growth.
This has helped fuel skyrocketing housing costs, with low-wage workers feeling the sting most acutely. They are stuck competing for an ever dwindling supply of affordable homes that are often substandard and in areas with lengthy commutes.
State lawmakers have responded in recent years by passing laws requiring cities to plan for more housing. But if Coronado is any indication, the state is in for a long fight.
Last year, the state government and the regional planning agency, SANDAG, tasked Coronado with drafting a housing plan that adds capacity for 912 new homes over the next eight years. More than half those homes should be affordable for low-income households. It's a massive increase from what was expected of Coronado in the past — in 2010, the city was asked to plan for only 50 new homes.
The higher number was a direct result of the state legislation. Cities like Coronado, which has a wealth of military and tourism jobs, must find a way to house their workforce. If they can't grow outward, they must grow upward by allowing taller and denser apartment buildings. The new laws also require cities to proactively combat racial segregation and discrimination in housing.
The new mandates from Sacramento have not been well received in Coronado. At public meetings and in written comments, residents said faster growth would harm community character, increase traffic, block ocean views, lower property values and make parking more scarce.
Amid that pressure from residents, Coronado sued SANDAG last year to lower its housing allocation. The city and its co-plaintiffs — Imperial Beach, Lemon Grove and Solana Beach — lost, but are currently appealing.
"We are essentially trying to comply with an absurd and not sensible state law," said Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey at the City Council’s June 15 meeting.
Ultimately city staffers prepared a housing plan that zones for 344 additional homes — a number Bailey said is closer to what Coronado can handle. The city council approved the downsized housing plan unanimously on Tuesday.
"It's not based on a pie in the sky number from the state, which had no basis in reality whatsoever, did not take into account our existing land use, size, not take into account available space, our existing infrastructure, our sewage, etc.," Bailey said last month.
Even the city's 344-home plan is unlikely to get built in its entirety. The plan relies entirely on backyard granny flat construction and the redevelopment of two large plots of land. One is an undeveloped parcel on the Silver Strand while the other is home to one of the city's two large grocery stores.
Coronado's strategy of thumbing its nose at state housing law is not without risks. The state government, developers or local nonprofits can sue Coronado into compliance, and courts can take over the city's land use authority. The state can also withhold funding, though Coronado's wealth makes that consequence less worrisome.
Coronado City Councilmember Michael Donovan last month summed up the city's strategy: State housing officials will be busy dealing with similar battles all across California, and Coronado can afford to run out the clock a bit longer.
"With our active lawsuit and with other things going on in their process, we would probably have a few years before they might get serious," Donovan said.
While Coronado's housing battles may seem small in the context of the statewide debate, the city's recent actions will likely serve as a test case for other cities fighting new development, said Jon Wizard, policy director for the Campaign for Fair Housing Elements at YIMBY Law, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that sues cities to enforce state housing laws.
San Diego County is the first region in California to go through the process of updating local housing plans under the state's more aggressive mandates. Coronado has so far taken the most combative approach among neighboring cities, and the response from state housing officials could foreshadow battles over zoning and density across California.
Wizard said Coronado's housing needs are not just a question of following state law — they're also about fairness and equity.
"When Coronado says, 'We don't have to do what the state told us, we don't have to do our fair share, we don't have to pull our weight, but everybody else does,' what Coronado is saying is that 'we're special' and that 'you don’t deserve to live here,'" Wizard said.
Preciado, the hotel worker who lives in Chula Vista, had a similar message for Coronado city leaders.
"I would say to them that everybody deserves a very nice home," Preciado said. "We are working hard, and our families deserve a very good place to live, too."