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Housing advocates say downtown Oceanside density cap may violate state law

Oceanside City Hall, March 2017.
Promise Yee
Oceanside City Hall, March 2017.

On Wednesday, the Oceanside City Council voted to put a limit of 86 market-rate housing units per acre on what developers can build in the downtown area. Once affordable housing units are factored in, the number shouldn't exceed 150 units per acre.

"The assumptions are that we want to continue to develop everything and we want the development to be a constant stream," said Council member Eric Joyce. "This is our opportunity to say, 'What is a reasonable development? What is a development that we are actually seeking out to continue the development in our city.'"

In 2019 the cap was 43 units per acre — half the current number — but the council removed it and gave developers unlimited density as long as their proposals met affordable housing requirements. This led to the approval of larger and denser developments in the downtown area, the majority at market rate.


"I haven't spoken to a single person that lives in our city that wants us to drastically increase from the previous building that we've had before," Joyce said. "I know that we need housing and so let's do it incrementally. The problem with being very drastic in this is that once the tower is built ... you're not taking it down."

Councilmembers agreed that if more density is needed down the line, the limit can be increased.

Oceanside mayor, Esther Sanchez, said denser market-rate developments — with only a handful of affordable units — don't meet the needs of Oceanside residents.

"We need low and very low (income housing), we don't need other units. This is not really meeting our needs ... which is why we need to build affordable housing projects," she said. "I know there's a ton of money and that's the reason why we're stuck in this, 'Sacramento decides everything for our city.'"

State housing law limits cities' abilities to deny dense housing proposals as long as they meet the zoning ordinances and land use designations in place when the proposal is submitted.


"On the surface, (Oceanside) is trying to break state housing law, said Matthew Lewis with California YIMBY, an organization aimed at making the state an affordable place to live and work.

He said Oceanside could make up for the limited housing downtown in other areas of the city, but that would need to be outlined in the city’s housing element plan submitted to the state.

Oceanside’s plan is still under review.

"If they don't have a certified housing element, then they're taking a pretty big risk reducing capacity," Lewis said. "Its something that we have seen cities do and not get away with." 

He said an enforcement division at the state Department of Housing and Community Development and California Attorney General Rob Bonta are now keeping a closer eye on cities that deny denser housing.

"The longer we prevent people from living in places that are desirable, where there's already existing infrastructure, services, schools, roads, etc ... the more we force those people to live further and further away in places that are actually still pristine," he said. "And they still have to commute all the way back to the coast because that's where the jobs are."  

Lewis said it would be better if cities viewed dense housing as a positive thing because it leads to economic growth, more middle-class income, and less homelessness.

In order for the density cap to be valid two things must happen, the coastal commission will need to approve the change and Oceanside’s housing element plan has to be approved by the state.