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Carmel examines its priorities at the city sets about updating its housing plan.

Carmel street scene

A street scene along Ocean Avenue in Carmel, where buildings are mostly single-story. Carmel’s housing feasibility study suggests that going higher in this area would be one way to build in the homes Carmel must plan for. 

Pam Marino here, remembering back in the 1980s and ‘90s there was a popular demonstration in the self-help world that was supposed to help you see how to prioritize your life and manage time. It consisted of rocks, pebbles and sand in a glass jar. You probably remember this analogy too.

The story would go something like this: If you fill up your jar with too much sand and pebbles (small to medium priorities) you’ll never fit all larger rocks (big priorities, like family). If you fit all the large rocks in first, then the sand and pebbles flow easily in and around the spaces created by the rocks. 

I was reminded of this analogy last week while watching a housing presentation for the city of Carmel. Like all cities in the county, and the county government itself, the state is requiring Carmel to reimagine their housing plans, called housing elements, by December. Each jurisdiction must plan for a significantly higher number of housing units—known as RHNA, which stands for Regional Housing Needs Assessment—for the state’s next eight-year housing cycle that begins next year.

In tiny Carmel’s case, it must find a way to plan for 349 units, more than 10 times what the city had to plan for in the current cycle, or 31. Most of the 349 units must be for very low-, low- and moderate-income households. (Note: The city does not have to build them or make sure they are built, just amend the housing element to allow for the units to be built by a developer.) 

The city hired a consulting firm, ECONorthwest, to conduct a feasibility study to figure out just where planners might be able to add units. After walking the city and carefully studying its existing zoning and planning regulations—plus its topography, historic resources and other constraints—the consultants came up with 17 sites where the city could possibly fit new units. 

Sites with the most potential included, among others: the Sunset Center parking lot, which the city has long eyed for a possible parking structure/mixed use project; Ulrika Plaza, currently “the pit,” on Dolores Street; a Carmel Public Works lot; the Carmel Presbyterian Church parking lot; all single-story downtown buildings.

In order to make those sites work, Carmel would have to change some rules. Like increasing the downtown height limit or changing the zoning where the church property sits. 

Back to the analogy. You could say the big rocks are already in Carmel’s jar, the city just needs to find a way to flow in the sand and pebbles. I would argue that the rocks in the city’s jar formed by existing zoning, regulations and Carmelite’s intense love of “village character” are already crowding the jar. They have to be chipped down to a more manageable size so the sand flows into the jar more freely.

The feasibility study highlighted just why Carmel needs to find space for lower-income housing: Since 2019 the median home price increased by 84 percent from $1.6 million to $2.95 million (most were cash offers); 2,102 people work in Carmel but only 2.6 percent live in the city; a quarter of workers commute from over 25 miles away; 47 percent of all households that rent their home are cost burdened, which means they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and of those, 25 percent are severely cost burdened, spending more than 50 percent.

The Carmel City Council Ad Hoc Housing Committee, made up of councilmembers Karen Ferlito and Bobby Richards, tried to remain upbeat and positive in the face of a room full of residents who were not thrilled with the state’s mandate at the meeting. They asked residents to come to the table with creativity and thoughtfulness to help the city amend the housing element. 

They also reminded residents that there are serious consequences for those jurisdictions that don't create housing elements that pass muster with the state, including penalties, fines and losing the ability to approve development projects.

On a more positive note, Ferlito said amending the city’s housing element isn’t just an exercise, “it’s also in a way creating community, and you create community by welcoming people into our community to be part of it.” She later added some important, broader context: “This isn’t the state doing something evil to us or a bad thing, it’s their quest to have a home for every Californian.”

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