HomeCity NewsSan Marino City Officials Seek Public’s Input on Housing Challenges

San Marino City Officials Seek Public’s Input on Housing Challenges

As San Marino takes steps toward certifying its sixth cycle housing element, safeguarding the small town’s character and rich architecture is the driving force behind completing the mission to become compliant under state law.

In an effort to educate residents on what’s at stake and garner an understanding of the housing element process, the Community Development Department welcomed more than 130 residents to an open conversation, where participation ran high as individuals lined up to voice their opinions and ask questions, at the San Marino Community Center on April 23.

A housing element is a state-mandated element of a city’s general plan. It assesses housing needs and conditions, accommodates the projected housing unit demand and sets housing goals, objectives, policies and programs. It is codified by state law and it’s the only element in the general plan that has to be certified and approved by the state every eight years.

City Manager Philippe Eskandar, Community Development Director Isidro Figueroa and other city staff were on hand to answer questions at the most recent meeting, fostering transparency and open communication.

Eskandar said being clear with residents about what city officials are doing with the housing element and why they are doing it is one of the highest hurdles they are seeking to overcome.

“By the questions people were asking, it seemed evident to me and the other staff that folks were really trying their best to digest what we have to deal with and were trying to find ways to adapt to what the state wants us to do, but in a San Marino fashion — in a thoughtful, methodical and deliberate way, rather than ending up painting the city with a broad brush,” Eskandar told the Tribune.

The sixth cycle housing element process was first initiated back in 2019. However, now in 2024 and with the housing element being due in 2021, the city is three years late. In February 2022, the City Council adopted the second draft of the housing element, but California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) returned it to the city with revisions required in order to approve certification.

Six months later in October 2022, the former housing element consultant ended its relationship with the city, which led to staffing challenges due to that vacancy. This was a factor that contributed to the delayed timeline.

In November 2023, the HCD sent a notice of violation to the city. Since then, San Marino has hired consultant Mobius Planning, putting it back on track. However, two third-party organizations — Californians for Homeownership and California Housing Defense Fund — have also entered the equation, making it their intent to take the city to court for it not yet having a certified housing element by the state.

This situation is not unique to San Marino; it is a reality that cities near and far are forced to navigate. Californians for Homeownership have sued cities including South Pasadena, Beverly Hills, Bradbury, Claremont, Fullerton, La Habra Heights, La Mirada, Laguna Hills, Manhattan Beach and Vernon. Meanwhile, the California Housing Defense Fund has taken legal action against La Cañada Flintridge, Cupertino, Martinez, Palo Alto, Pleasant Hill and Santa Clara.

Photo by Natalie Miranda / Residents line up to ask questions and provide feedback to city staff regarding San Marino’s housing element on April 23 at the San Marino Community Center.

Not having a certified housing element leaves San Marino vulnerable to a potential “builder’s remedy,” a legal tool that may allow developers to bypass local zoning and general plan requirements when a locality’s housing element does not fully comply with state law.

“I want to keep this community single-family, but we have to deal with reality,” said a public commenter who introduced himself as Richard Patlan. “If we don’t deal with reality, we are going to get stuck with a bunch of housing units anywhere in the city, so I think this proposal you guys are putting out to the community is well thought out.”

The California Housing Accountability Act indicates that the jurisdiction cannot use its zoning or general plan standards to reject any housing project that meets the affordability requirements if a local jurisdiction does not have a “substantially compliant” housing element.

Cities with builder’s remedy apartment projects underway include La Cañada Flintridge, Alhambra, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Redondo Beach.

The consequences of being noncompliant include potentially resulting in the city losing local control over permits and development. This scenario would involve the courts assuming authority of the local government residential and nonresidential permit process.

According to Figueroa’s recent presentation, courts can fine jurisdictions up to $100,000 per month for noncompliance, and if those fines are not paid, they can multiply that figure by up to six times. Lastly, courts may appoint an agent to remedy identified housing element deficiencies and bring the jurisdiction’s housing element into compliance.

“We love San Marino, and we are doing everything we can to protect it. With that said, there are housing element laws that are coming down from Sacramento, that we, as your city staff and your elected leaders, have to respond to,” stressed Eskandar in front of community members. “… We have to do this to protect San Marino. That is our ultimate goal.”

As mandated by the state, a city’s housing element projects the housing needs of all people in the community, based on the city’s share of the regional housing needs assessment, commonly known as RHNA. In San Marino’s case, the city has been allocated 397 units, broken down into four economic segments — with 149 “very low” units, 91 “low” units, 91 “moderate” units and “66” “above moderate” units.

Among the key components in the housing element are establishing a sites inventory and housing constraints assessment.

For the sites inventory, San Marino must identify land that is deemed suitable for the creation of 397 housing units through 2029, explain why it’s a good location for housing and ensure the selected areas can accommodate a variety of housing types, such as single-family housing, multifamily housing and townhouses.

This poses a challenge for the city to find adequate vacant land, both public and private. Because San Marino is “built out,” there is limited vacant land available. As an alternative, the city is looking to take advantage of underutilized sites. These sites are parcels that have existing land uses that could have housing added to them. Attempting to rezone those parcels to allocate housing units to meet the RHNA is also an option.

The state finds that a minimum of a half-acre parcel is needed for a viable multifamily project in a commercial zone. Unfortunately, most of the city’s commercial zone properties are less than half an acre, and since San Marino doesn’t have a track record of approving projects of that kind, it puts what is able to be executed in a “box,” Figueroa said.

Photo by Natalie Miranda / City Manager Philippe Eskandar (left) told residents he is available to discuss the housing element wherever it’s convenient for them.

When looking to meet RHNA through mixed use projects, the city envisions rezoning existing commercial sites, which could be realized through a building that offers housing, as well as retail.

Southwestern Academy has initiated talks about employee housing for its faculty at its campus. Meanwhile, The Huntington, which could also potentially offer employee housing, already has the zoning that allows for a project of that kind.

The Stoneman site, which is owned and operated by the city, is underutilized, city officials have said. As the city approaches a viable project, the hope is to rezone the 1.5-acre undeveloped portion of the land, while keeping intact the historic school buildings. The site has been said to be conducive to a senior housing project and, most recently, multifamily housing. Such a development, if it comes to fruition, may have multiple stories.

The potential of the three aforementioned projects to create housing would alleviate the impact of rezoning on residential neighborhoods, officials forecast. Additionally, accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, also will play a role in accommodating housing needs.

Though San Marino hopes residential neighborhoods are not impacted, the HCD objective includes providing for “missing middle” housing in low density neighborhoods. This means that existing residential properties (R-1) can be rezoned to allow for multifamily housing with duplexes and triplexes. The city will need to determine where to rezone, with consideration of proximity to transit stops, commerce and employment.

Eskandar said he was pleased that many of attendees left realizing that while the city’s options are limited, progress is being made so that San Marino can retain local control over how it expands development.

“Folks seem to generally understand that this is not something that the City Council or city staff are driving, rather the City Council is doing its best to respond to something every city is dealing with,” Eskandar said.

“Everyone was very reasonable in understanding that we need to do something to protect San Marino as much as we can, because the do-nothing approach leaves the city exposed, and going down that path, we have zero control,” he added.

Next, San Marino aims to complete the housing element draft, hold a seven-day public comment period, rezone during the implementation phase, send the draft to the planning commission and City Council, and submit the draft to HCD by July.

Eskandar stressed the community engagement efforts both he and Figueroa have carried out, and that they are committed to listening to all residents interested in learning more about the situation.

“Generally, people are afraid of the unknown and our biggest challenge here is that this is a very complicated issue,” Eskandar said. “Housing element law is huge in California and so we want to bring people up to speed so they understand it. The more you understand something, the less imposing or scary it is, so that’s what we really have to get past.”

First published in the May 2 issue of the San Marino Tribune


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