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Initiative to spur Costa Mesa housing, development to go before voters as Measure K

People at Costa Mesa City Hall on Election Day in 2020.
A new ballot initiative will go before Costa Mesa voters on Nov. 8. Above, people arrive at Costa Mesa City Hall on Election Day in 2020.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

An effort to exempt certain commercial and industrial corridors in Costa Mesa from the mandates of a 2016 initiative requiring voter approval for development projects seeking an excess of entitlements will appear on the November ballot as Measure K.

Supporters claim the new measure will remove some of the hurdles that have historically stood in the way of building projects that could have increased the city’s housing stock.

Opponents, including a contingent of residents who worked to pass the voting requirement six years ago, warn opening the floodgates to developers without an established mandate of affordability will do little to help the housing crisis.

Voters will be asked in November which course to take, meaning both sides have two months to make their cases before the public.

Officials recently posted information on Measure K to the city’s website, including arguments for and against the plan that will be printed and disseminated to voters ahead of Election Day.

A City Council ad hoc committee on housing drafted the ballot language for the measure as well as supporting arguments, in which they claim the earlier initiative, Measure Y, made it costly, difficult and risky for anyone to build new affordable residential units.

“Housing has been a primary issue we’ve been discussing since the first meeting of my first term,” said Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds, who served on the ad hoc committee. “Doing nothing is not an option. We’re here to represent the people of Costa Mesa, and 50% of people are concerned about housing, so we’ve got to address it.”

Members of the political action committee “Costa Mesa First,” who wrote Measure Y and put it on the ballot in 2016, said citizens at the time were fed up with the council approving housing projects that impacted neighbors and cost too much for residents to afford.

“We were trying to give input to the City Council and were basically ignored,” longtime resident and Y co-author Cynthia McDonald said Thursday. “Now, we’re six years down the road and some of the dissatisfaction is still there.”

Too few affordable housing units have been built in recent years — on that, both sides agree. But while council members blame the stringency of Measure Y, its authors point to the city’s failure to pass a housing ordinance requiring housing projects to include low-income units.

Measure K’s language says the initiative will encourage the development of affordable housing for working and middle class families, while revitalizing commercial areas.

“We can address the current housing needs and start to invest in the way Costa Mesa residents really want us to,” Reynolds said of the measure.

But Jay Humphrey, a former City Council member (1990-1994) who helped pass Measure Y, says while the ballot language makes reference to building projects that comply with a council-adopted affordable housing ordinance, such an ordinance doesn’t yet exist.

“There’s nothing requiring affordable housing in Measure K,” he said. “A housing ordinance does not exist, and will it exist before the election?”

Costa Mesa City Councilman Don Harper, the lone city official who opposes Measure K, said it would subvert the power of citizens to have a say in what gets built in their community. He says the city should have worked with residents to envision smart development before easing restrictions.

“[The council] went in the wrong order,” he said. “We just turned the key and opened the door for developers.”

Reynolds maintained Measure K will help the city meet state housing mandates while reimagining run-down commercial sectors into beneficial community spaces.

“This is a housing issue,” she said. “It’s about people in our community who are struggling every day.”

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