June 20, 2019 - From the June, 2019 issue

‘Baking In’ Equity at Metro: USC’s Manuel Pastor & Vanessa Carter

Metro’s new equity platform, in combination with Measures M and A, the NextGen Bus Study, and the 2028 Olympics offer Los Angeles a heretofore unmatched opportunity to build and showcase a multimodal, world-class transit system that centers the needs of the communities who use it most. In this interview, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at USC Dornsife Manuel Pastor and Senior Data Analyst Vanessa Carter discuss the need to define equity in a measurable way and how Metro can ensure that equity is baked intonot sprinkled ontothe public transit system in Los Angeles going forward.


Manuel Pastor

“The concern about the implementation of (LA County) Measures M and A and our a concern about NextGen Bus Study is very much consistent with the overall mission of USC PERE.”—Manuel Pastor

Update Readers on the evolved mission and work of USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

Manuel Pastor: The Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) was established in 2007 when I arrived at USC. We look at questions of equity in our urban systems: The ways in which environmental benefits and burdens are distributed; the ways in which economic opportunity has been unequal by race/ethnicity and neighborhood; and the ways in which our transit systems, our park systems, serve or don’t serve particular communities.

There are a few specifics about PERE’s approach that are worth highlight. First, we tend to argue that pursuing equity is beneficial to the region as a whole. As you know, we’ve done a lot of work looking at the impacts of inequality on metropolitan growth and, consistent with research from the Cleveland Federal Reserve and others, we’ve found that regions that are more unequal, more racially segregated, and more jurisdictionally divided tend not to be able to sustain growth over time. As a result, we don’t think of equity as something you do after economic development, we think of it as being fundamental to doing economic development.

The second thing we do that is a bit different is that we try to provide better metrics for looking at issues of equity and economic and social opportunity. So along with Policy Link, we’ve launched the National Equity Atlas, which looks at the top 150 metropolitan regions, 100 Cities, all 50 States plus D.C., and disparities in terms of income, employment, access to clean environments and more, providing cuts by race/ethnicity, nativity (that is, whether you’re U.S.-born or immigrant), gender, educational attainment, and other factors.

Finally, another distinctive aspect of PERE is that we do a lot of the work with and for community-based organizations (CBOs) trying to make change. We don’t think that research on its own will actually create change but rather, it needs to be coupled with organizers and people seeking to shift the balance of power.

This work that we’ve been doing about equity, and the implementation of Measures M and A fits perfectly into that. If you build equity into the transit system and ensure that riders can actually use the service they need, it’s going to be better for the economy of the region as a whole. Equity needs to be done from the beginning and measured and so it’s  really important for Metro to think about measures of equity. It’s also important for community participation and for community voices to be at the table when those Metrics and directions are set.

And that’s why we’ve been concerned about the implementation of LA County Metro’s Measures M and A and the NextGen Bus Study – it’s very consistent with the overall mission of USC PERE.

At the last meeting of NextGen Bus Study’s External Working Group held in South Los Angeles at Holman United Methodist Church on West Adams, the issue and focus was on Metro’s “equity platform”. Are you both satisfied with Metro’s application of its equity platform to the reimagining of LA County’s bus services?

Manuel Pastor: One of the things we’d like to fairly acknowledge is that Metro has made tremendous progress on these issues, recently. Metro has had a fairly decent record with thinking about employment opportunities and beginning to consider how they might be better delivered in a way that might benefit underserved communities. There has also been more attention to the fact that although housing is not officially part of its mission, Metro is one of the biggest forces impacting the metropolitan housing markets.

I think it’s also important to say that Metro, which has sometimes been timid about public participation, has gotten better—when you get yelled at a lot that tends to be one of the reactions you might have. But before expressing our dissatisfaction, it’s also important to figure out how to prod Metro to do even better. Part of what’s been getting Metro to do better over the past five or six years has been prodding from CBOs, along with a little bit of scaffold support from research by people like us.

Vanessa Carter: Phil Washington, Stephanie Wiggins, and Therese McMillan were great partners in the last few years. Now, with Stephanie gone and Therese gone, I’m curious about the direction Metro’s going to go. I do want to say how much incredible leadership they provided and how helpful that was among the equity advocates that we’ve been working with, at PERE.

About Next Gen—it has been a frustrating process. I think part of that is the participatory structures. On a whole, the participatory structures in government really need updating. We’re working within old frameworks for how to do participation that aren’t setting us up for great outcomes and are frustrating for everyone involved – government and community, alike. I want to say that up front.

When I was looking around the room at the NextGen meeting, there were a lot of people who do transportation equity work who weren’t there. That alone is a pretty good indication of the level of dissatisfaction among equity stakeholders. Part of that is because it’s been a huge time commitment, most CBOs are funded by philanthropy and have to do their own fundraising. If Metro were to provide stipends for participation that would really be a game changer.

Another part is that folks don’t feel that it’s been a genuine partnership, that there are efforts, but it’s the same community engagement process that was before. Part of what we addressed in Measures Matter was the need to revamp the community engagement process. What I saw at the Next Gen meeting was arguably not that.

There’s also a level of frustration that there’s still not an equity definition at Metro. Like I expressed at the meeting, it’s hard to define metrics towards an undefined goal. In Measures Matter we looked at the academic literature and talked to equity stakeholders across the region, which builds on our ten years of work on equity. What really came through was that we have baked racism into our land use, and it’s going to take an affirmative effort to reverse that. Part of that is a strong equity definition.

We’re eager to find out about the upcoming Equity Officer at Metro. The equity stakeholders that we work with have talked about the need for a team around that person to carry the weight of that charge.   

We also want to know how the equity platform can really have teeth at Metro? Therese did a great job putting the platform together and bringing it forward in a really short amount of time. The next step is to see it reflected in the way projects are being funded, in a revamping of the participatory process, and more.

Elaborate on your Measures Matter report and how it addresses the extreme income inequality in the Los Angeles region—which some suggest is unmatched in the US?

Manuel Pastor: First, I think you’re right about the level of income inequality. If you look at the shift in the wage structure over time, there’s been a shift upward in the wages nationwide of those who are in the 80th and 90th percentiles, but downward for those in the middle, and, way, way, down for those in the  20th and 10th percentiles. If you look at that pattern, Los Angeles has an even more unequal pattern – it’s sort of a region on steroids in terms of its inequality.

And when you’re dealing with equity, you have to think about the dimension of time.

How do you address the past? How do you deal with past inequalities that have been baked-in around race, education, job training, and redlining?

How do you address the present? How do improving community participation and voice in the decisions that are being made? In addressing this, we must consider the capacity of community organizations to participate and feel like they’re in at the beginning of the process. That requires investments in capacity building. When we do our own research, we sit down with the equity community and ask them what issues they think are important in order to check in with them along the way and to debut our results to them first.

And lastly, how do you address the future? We must think about whether our solutions of today might actually make things worse moving forward. For example, like most everyone else, we’re excited about the expansion of transit and the building of housing near transit stations and stops. But the question is whether we are doing that in a way that allows people already there and using the transit to stay rather than be displaced by rent hikes that come as a place improves.

As we address these things, we must acknowledge that we live in an economy that is actively making things worse. First, we live in an innovation economy and a lot of innovations these days tend to create monopolies—look at how Uber and Lyft took over the entire rideshare market or how Google is the only search engine anyone ever uses. There’s a lot of accumulated power that results from this process. Second, while I think that the work on the ‘creative economy’ done by Richard Florida is over hyped, the knowledge economy does result in the clustering of highly paid people together, meaning they are then able to bid everyone out of the coastal labor markets, including in LA.

So, we have an economy that is actively promoting inequality. We’ve made a huge commitment to mass transit, but it’s actually making it easier for gentrification and displacement to take place. We need to be thinking about measures that would get ahead of the inequality we’re creating and create the kind of opportunities we need.

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What we tried to do in Measures Matter is talk about how Measures M and A do hold a risk of displacement from gentrification, particularly with the investments in rail, which is going to make it a lot easier for people to move in to the Crenshaw corridor, across the top of South LA, and displace long-time renters, in particular.

How do you actively build affordable housing? How do you actively work to make sure that you’re addressing the employment needs of those who have been formerly incarcerated? How do you make sure that people who might get displaced are protected by rent stabilization measures, affordable housing, and loan programs to allow people to buy the homes that they live in? How do you get ahead of these trends? How do you bake equity in, rather than sprinkle it on? How do you make sure that it’s fundamental to what you’re doing rather than something you have to deal with after you’ve caused distributional damage?

So our task in Measures Matter was to both highlight these broad issues and then come up with really specific metrics. 

Vanessa Carter: Data consistently shows that across income bands, people of color are more likely to be transit users. It’s not just income. How can Metro be affirmatively pro people-of-color? How can Metro create a transit system that protects, rather than polices, Black bodies?

Particularly, that needs to be a conversation that happens in South LA, where talk about security can also make people wonder more about whether they’ll be arrested on a transit line. Metro can also double-down on workforce development. The Black Workers Center has put out a really great report on hiring that will affirm Black workers.

Manuel Pastor: If you look at the data and the graphs in Measures Matter you see that at every level of income, people of color, in particular immigrants, are much higher users of mass transit than whites. While the strategy of the past has been to figure out how we get suburban people back onto the system, another strategy is how to keep people on the system who are currently the really heavy users. That’s why this Next Gen study is so important and really needs to be responsive to daily use and needs of those particular riders.

How do you design it with immigrant Latinos as the primary customer so that when their incomes go up, they continue riding transit? Instead of luring users back on, how do you ensure current users are able to stay riding?

Vanessa Carter: Some of the framing at the NextGen Bus Study meeting was focused on how to bring new users into the system. I understand Metro’s need to address the decline in ridership and we want ridership to go up, of course. But I am concerned that the framing of that meeting was more about, “How we bring new people into the system,” rather than, “How do we keep the folks who are currently using the system and improve their experience?” in addition to adding more people to the system.

Does upzoning by right in LA without safeguards for affordability and livability potentially undermine the goal of community equity. 

Vanessa Carter: I’ve been hearing similar concerns that Opportunity Zones will spur displacement from gentrification. Displacement is without a doubt one of the greatest crises happening in LA right now. Putting a lens of displacement on top of all of the policy work we’re doing right now is important if people are going to be able to stay and thrive in California.

There was a lot of the concern around some earlier versions of SB 50 and whether we would be able to preserve the affordable housing protections that community organizers have fought for and won in the past, that were based on offering zoning variances if affordable housing was included.

Manuel Pastor:  I think the earliest versions of the bill that Wiener had last year—which had a lot of support from the YIMBY movement—was based on the idea that if you build more housing, you’ll get a trickle-down effect that will free up housing for others. The evidence is not really that strong to support that unless you have a focus on affordable housing, a focus on renter protections, and a focus on reaching communities.

For example, we calculated a few years ago that in the Bay Area, households with two full-time minimum wage workers, even at the higher minimum wage that exists in much of the Bay Area, can only afford to move into 5% of the census tracts in the entire nine-county Bay Area. I’m sure it’s even worse now and just building more housing isn’t going to deal with that crisis quickly enough. This year, I think, SB 50 did more to include renter protections. There remain concerns about neighborhood character that are not just in higher income areas but places like Crenshaw, which is worried about a lot of high-end housing coming in and displacing middle and working class renters.

We do need more upzoning. We do need more building on all ends of the housing market. But we do need to focus on affordability. Rent stabilization is a key tool to be able to protect people in terms of residential stability, immediately and at very little cost to cities. I’m hopeful that that conversation will continue, and we’ll likely get to something that people are more comfortable with, but it is sad to see almost nothing coming out of Sacramento right now. There is the rent cap bill in the state legislature: While we need a rent cap, it’s not enough. It has to be a rent cap that is reasonable for lower-income families, and 5 percent—let alone 10 percent—annual rent increases are a strain for working people.

One reason why we think it’s so important to address equity, to measure it, is because we have such a huge opportunity. LA County has agreed to tax itself on the order of $140 billion over time to improve transit. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right.

We also have the Olympics coming in 2028, in which we hope to boast our World Class City, and not just that you can get around on what exists of our rail system but also that you’ll be able to go to our neighborhoods and discover them. What would it mean for us to be a World Class City and Region in terms of opportunities for the formerly incarcerated to gain employment; in terms of every community having access to a park nearby where they can recreate and a transit system that can easily take them to the bigger parks across the city; in terms of really closing the last mile problem, particularly for low-income riders in the system. These are great goals to set when we have an opportunity to showcase our self and have shown a willingness to make the investment. How do we make sure we get it right in Los Angeles? 

Lastly, considering the Blackstone Group is the largest holder of residential real estate in the county, how did SB 50 come to be labeled a bold solution to the housing crisis in the absence of strong affordability protections and in light of who the winners are if the State commoditize, by right, residential property?

Manuel Pastor: We have been warning in this situation that Metro will come up short unless community engagement is improved so that CBOs have capacity, a place at the table, and a willing ear. If they do, then we have an opportunity with Measure A and Measure M, and other plans like NextGen, to get it right in a way that builds public will for a better transit system to be used by everyone.

I think that has been the gap with SB 50. Particularly, it comes out of the notion that experts can get together and rethink how we need to upzone without engaging the communities that need to be engaged in order to figure out what the political parameters of possibility are like why affordability is so crucial? What does the community need to protect neighbors who don’t feel invested in and worry that they will be pushed away by a huge housing project?

Let me highlight why engagement of diverse communities is so key to success. Each year the Public Policy Institute does a poll around the issues of the environment. Over the past eight years, one of the most consistent results comes when they ask ‘do you think global warming is a very serious issue that threatens the economy of California and its quality of life?’ Most people anticipate that if you did a racial breakdown of the responses, white Californians would care more about the climate than other people, particularly since the literature often poses a trade-off between jobs and the environment. But if you look at the data, only about half of white Californians agree that climate change is very serious while nearly two-thirds of Latino Californians say that it is.

Why is that? Given patterns of environmental disparities, issues of pollution and climate change are felt most acutely by these populations of color. And what’s been interesting about the past five to seven years is the realization of those policy preferences and understanding that the way to get a political coalition to address climate change is to build in environmental justice measures. The latest renewal of our GHG reduction goals was accompanied by legislation to monitor pollution in socially vulnerable communities and there is also a mandate to ensure that a quarter of the money collected by cap-and-trade goes to communities that have been socially vulnerable and environmentally overexposed. You can build coalitions if the communities that feel the negative impacts of policies most acutely feel like they’re involved and have a role in solving the problem. And that’s what needs to happen with proposals like SB 50 to upzone neighborhoods and speed up housing production.

Vanessa Carter: I was at a gathering yesterday at the LA 84 Foundation that the Prevention Institute put together, I believe it was Elsa Yañez who said that LA County is in a thinking moment; that we’re chewing on some hard issues, particularily around how to bake equity into our processes and outcomes. At the least, equity is certainly a buzzword right now. Lots of people are talking about it and trying to figure it out. We have an opportunity to double down on it.

There’s talk about how we need a county-wide body to help coordinate this work. Equity is a big topic that requires nuanced conversations and tailored approached. How can we help our government departments and agencies do equity well? When the Olympics come here it would be great if we could showcase how LA has figured out how to invest in its neighborhoods without displacing people, how we’ve built a transit system that supports people of color, and how it is possible to make progress on equity.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.