Brief History of Housing in Encinitas

Founding to 1986

Well before the City of Encinitas was incorporated, the area was home to Kumeyaay people. When the Portola expedition passed through in 1769, they recorded the presence of a Kumeyaay village, Hakutl, in what today is New Encinitas. Portola named the valley there Los Encinos

In the wake of Mexican independence in the 1840s, Andres Ybarra built his ranch, Rancho Las Encinitas, in the New Encinitas/Olivenhain area. The coastal portion of the city known as Old Encinitas was not founded until 1881. (Richard Carrico, Portola’s 1769 expedition and coastal native villages of San Diego, Journal of California Anthropology, 7/1/77,4 (1); R. Carrico, Sociopolitical aspects of the 1775 revolt at Mission San Diego de Alcala, San Diego History Center. Our City, Our History.)

In the 1930s and 1940s, the population of Encinitas (today, around 62,000) rose to around 2,000 persons. Historical documents show that the generalized racism within American society at that time is evidenced in Encinitas. For example, copies of quitclaim deeds, recording the transfer of properties, one from a commercial trust company to the Cardiff School District in 1930; the other from the San Dieguito Irrigation District to that same commercial trust company in 1948. Both contain racist covenant language; both properties are in coastal Cardiff. 

The 1948 document states: “Neither the whole or part of said premises shall be sold, conveyed, leased or rented to any person other than of the White or Caucasian race; neither the whole or any part of said premises shall be occupied or used by any person other than of the White or Caucasian race, unless such person be in the employ of the resident owner or resident tenant of said premises.” Similar language appears in the 1930 document. These documents highlight the reality that Encinitas, a sleepy Southern California outpost at that time, remained a microcosm of the greater cultural, political, and social forces that enforced discrimination as part of the American way of life.

1986 to Present Day

Encinitas, which includes what are termed Old and New Encinitas (western and eastern portions), Leucadia, Cardiff, and Olivenhain, incorporated just 35 years ago. One of the desires driving Encinitas’s creation in 1986 – to assert local control over land use decisions – remains strong, and still fuels conflict. 

In the late 1980s, growth concerns focused on strip malls and apartment buildings. As Encinitas’s mayor noted in a 2020 presentation on the City’s housing history, the desire to squelch the growth of multi-unit housing has largely been successful, as Encinitas has the lowest percentage of multi-family housing in the County (19%, set against a County average of 40%). 

Some background on housing law in California generally is in order here. In 1969 California passed a law requiring that all cities develop a Housing Element as part of their General Plan, primarily for the purpose of ensuring that each city would plan for and include development of some affordable housing units. The State’s Housing and Community Development Department (HCD) oversees this process, and dictates expectations for the number of affordable housing units a city should expect to add during each Housing Element cycle. Most cities develop a new Housing Element every eight years. Since 1969, there have been six of these cycles. 

In June 2013 Encinitas voters approved Proposition A, the Encinitas Right to Vote Initiative. This measure declared that any development project that proposed to upzone, i.e., increase the number of units and/or the height of a building beyond what the zoning for that specific property allows, would have to be approved by Encinitas voters. 

This conflicted with the Density Bonus Law, passed in 1976 in response to the shortage of affordable housing statewide. To incentivize the building of more affordable units in new projects, the law allows developers to increase the density of units built in any given project to exceed local zoning allowances by as much as 30%, and provides certain waivers for other zoning regulations related to parking capacity, setbacks, and square footage requirements. This negated some local control over development, and Encinitas’s Prop A was a direct challenge to that law.

Thus Encinitas was heading for a showdown with the State of California over control over new development. In a 2016 article, a reporter for Voice of San Diego noted that city staffers in 2014 and 2015 explicitly listed regaining local control over the Density Bonus law as a top legislative priority. The City’s 5th Cycle Housing Element would go before voters in 2016 as Measure T, and the City engaged in substantial outreach to educate voters about it.

However, voters did not approve it, and Encinitas remained out of compliance with State requirements. The City then created a Housing Element Task Force ahead of the next election in 2018 to work toward passage of Measure U, the next attempt to pass a compliant Housing Element. In the meantime, Encinitas faced multiple lawsuits related to its non-compliance with State housing law. 

Measure U failed as well. As required by a court order issued in late 2018, the City adopted the Housing Element (which was essentially Measure U) and in October 2019, the State accepted the Housing Element that Encinitas voters had rejected as Measure U, years after most other cities had approved 5th-Cycle Housing Elements in place.

In 2020, under pressure from the State HCD, the City of Encinitas went to court asking to set aside the Prop A requirement for voters to approve future Housing Elements, including up-zoning of properties.In an August 2021 decision, the Court ruled in favor of those supporting Prop A, reinstating it. 

Those who follow housing in California recognize that Encinitas is unique in the lengths to which the City has gone to block development of multi-unit housing. Between 2013 and 2020, there was a projected demand for 1,033 low income housing units, but only 94 were built; a projected demand for 413 moderate income units, with only 43 built. Contrast this with the demand for 1,048 units for above moderate income, with 901 built. (HCD Annual Progress Report 10/6/20).

“Community character” is a common theme expressed by the most vocal opponents to multi-unit housing developments. They suggest that much of the beauty of Encinitas resides in its small-town character, and that denser housing development will lead to impossible traffic congestion, crowding, and the loss of that character. Others, including members of groups such as Keys4Homes and Encinitas 4 Equality, believe that Encinitas has an obligation to provide affordable housing for people with more modest incomes, especially those who work here but cannot afford to live here. They also strongly believe that racial, ethnic, and income diversity is an important enhancement of “community character.”

With the Court’s reinstatement of Prop. A, and the City’s decision not to appeal that, these themes will continue to be contested among the residents of Encinitas.