July 30, 2019 - From the July, 2019 issue

PLUS²: Strategies to Foster Equitable Development of Transit-Oriented, Affordable Housing

Issues of equity and displacement were front and center at Inclusive Action for the City’s (formerly LURN's) 6th annual Planning and Landuse Solutions Summit (PLUS²) on June 26. In this panel, moderated by LA Thrive’s Thomas Yee, LA City Planning Director Vince Bertoni, Investing in Place Executive Director Jessica Meaney, Act-LA’s Asiyahola Sankara, and Thai CDC Executive Director Chanchanit Martorell discuss their vision for Transit-Oriented Communities (TOCs) and strategies for fostering equitable transit-oriented development and affordable housing production through community action and targeted policy solutions.


Jessica Meaney

“When I think of transit-oriented communities…I think about bus-only lanes where buses go faster than cars; sidewalks that are not broken but are smooth and accessible with wonderful trees that give us shade; dignified bus stops; very protected bike lanes that even moms and kids use and things like that.” —Jessica Meaney

Thomas Yee: Let’s start with each of you describing your vision for transit-oriented communities and your priorities for policies and what we need to do as a region.

Jessica Meany: When I think of transit-oriented communities— my background and my heart really is around transportation options - I think about bus-only lanes where buses go faster than cars; sidewalks that are not broken but are smooth and accessible with wonderful trees that give us shade; dignified bus stops; very protected bike lanes that even moms and kids use and things like that.

When I think about TOCs— where people are catching the bus, riding a bike, walking with their family—one of the key things is being able to live pretty close to where you want to go, whether that’s school, temple, or work, in order to use transit. TOCs are recreating diverse types of housing, particularly affordable housing, and public spaces where we can all be together and have some fun. There’s a mixed-up group of incomes, backgrounds, opportunities to be outside, complimented with the wraparound of plenty of transportation options, so they can drive, or take the bus in a bus-only lane and it’s faster than driving.

For me, TOCs are about the transportation options and about reducing the friction & distance people need to travel to get to where they want to go from where they live.

Asiyahola Sankara: I’m an organizer, so for me, the question is how do we build power and how do we organize communities to come together and fight for what they need. I am a life-long transit rider; I have experienced homelessness. I remember taking the bus at night between Union Station and Santa Monica, because I had nowhere to go and seeing the bus was packed with other people in the same situation. That’s my history and it’s the current present for many, too many, people across the city and region. That story only changes when we come together and say, enough. That’s step one.

Step two is after we say enough, we put forward our vision for what equitable development looks like that’s inclusive of all Californians regardless of how much money they make.

I work at ACT-LA. We’re a coalition of 36 organizations based in the City of LA with partners across the county. I think our history is an important case study for how we move from the vision of equitable development to the implementation of it.

For us, that started in 2011. Neighborhood leaders from across the city had been fighting for community benefits agreements and were forcing developers in their neighborhoods to the negotiating table to demand affordable housing, good quality mobile jobs, healthy food, small business support, and all of the things they had been wanting to see in their community for a long time but hadn’t.

There was this sense of urgency after Measure R in 2008 that TOD (transit-oriented development) was the next hot, sexy thing. But it was also driving up land values in areas that are near transit, and in LA that means communities of color.

A group of folks from across the city got together to figure out what we were going to do. What came out of that was the desire to have a citywide policy framework that would take the values, tools, and models of the community benefits agreements and apply them across the city. That was the idea; it was really as general as that.

As a coalition, we spent the next two years working with community leaders and residents in Boyle Heights, South LA, K-Town, Hollywood, Thai Town figuring out the policy. We had our policy wonks get together with our community leaders and organizers, and from 2012-2013 developed policy around an equitable, citywide land-use strategy. We ended up landing on the idea of a super density bonus program: If developers want density near transit, then they have to give back to the community in the form of affordable housing and good jobs.

I think it’s a really important history to lift up because that became Measure JJJ. But sometimes when we hear about Measure JJJ today, it’s as if it fell from the sky. It wasn’t. It was community members building up their vision from scratch—from the ground, from the neighborhood level— to citywide policy. We took this policy idea, refined it, turned it into policy language and a framework that we brought to City Council.

We made a strategic decision around this. When it comes to land-use policy, it’s a really technical world. We didn’t go in wide-eyed and naive. We knew that we wanted to create a role for the planning department in this. What we did was create a skeleton policy that had guardrails around it—meaning we knew we wanted a certain level of affordable housing etc— and we took it to Council.

We were extremely disappointed by the reaction that we got, and in all due respect to all the people in the room, there was a failure of leadership. Nobody at Council wanted to move this forward. For us it was disappointing, but we decided to keep going. We believed in the idea.

In 2016 there was an opportunity to bypass council and take this straight to the voters, so that’s what we did. We partnered with the LA Federation of Labor to create Measure JJJ with a super-density bonus and closed a loophole that developers were using to get general plan amendments and zone changes without having to provide community benefits. It passed with 64 percent of the vote.

I think one of the most inspirational things to see in the campaign was the leadership of almost all women of color. These women, many of whom had experienced homelessness, had moved their families off the streets and into affordable housing, and were telling their story in front of the whole city of how affordable housing helped them transform their lives, their childrens’ lives, and why we needed to fight and vote. That was really powerful to see.

I think there is a model in this story for other cities or regions in the state that are looking at TOD and how to take this smart growth idea and make it truly equitable for folks who are most in need of affordable housing.

Vince Bertoni: The difference in lifespan between someone from Watts and someone from Pacific Palisades or Brentwood is around 13 years. The disparity we have here is an example of some of the worst inequality in the world. Thirteen years is the difference in life expectancy between countries that have the most well-developed healthcare systems and the worst. Thirteen years is not a small thing, it’s a big thing. You talk about income inequality, lack of investment, lack of access; we have it all here, just all in one city.

One of the challenges we have is how to deal with this housing crisis that is contributing to so many people experiencing homelessness in our city. How do you deal with that issue and how do you fix the fact that we underbuilt housing for over thirty years? Two of the most important things we are balancing right now are climate change and equity. How do you bring all of this together?

At the planning department, we aren’t allowed to get involved with political action, whether it’s a candidate or an initiative, so I had to look at Measure JJJ from a distance. We didn’t have an opportunity to craft it whatsoever. But I will say we’ve worked closely with ACT-LA in the past while developing housing policies and community plans. That was a very productive partnership that we had, and it was very appreciated.

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A lot of debate around JJJ was focused on deed-restricted affordable housing and jobs. They didn’t discuss as much the transit-oriented communities incentives as much. So, we started to pay attention to that. We basically had a tremendous opportunity. Like Asiyahola was saying, they had created the framework for transit-oriented communities incentives but with guardrails.

It was a super-density bonus, and they gave us a minimum but no maximum, and said the sky’s the limit. This is something that you never see in Los Angeles where the planning director of the city of LA comes up with the rules and brings them to the city planning commission for comment, not approval, and it comes back to the director for approval.

They gave us a new income category of ‘extremely low-income’, for households that earn 30 percent of the area median income which roughly equates to minimum wage. Those are the folks who are most at risk of experiencing homelessness, so we wanted to target that group. We also wanted to target the areas that weren’t experiencing low-incomes.

These policies went into effect in September 2017 and now represent over half of our residential housing developments—over half of our TOC incentives. Out of the affordable units we produce, over half are extremely-low income and we’re seeing market-rate, non-high-rise development in places that have not typically seen investment in the past. What TOC does is give developers a bump to build more, build higher, build more units if they provide a certain amount of deed-restricted housing.

The end result was that it brought market-rate housing to South LA for the first time in a long time, allowing generations to stay together, and brought affordable housing to the Westside. That’s one of the great things about it, it distributed affordable housing benefits throughout the city.

Chanchanit Martorell: The Thai Community Development Center was founded 25 years ago to advance the mission of bringing social and economic equity to depressed economies and to low-income communities that are experiencing blight and urban decay or a lack of capital infusion or economic development. We target the vulnerable and the dispossessed and disadvantaged through wealth generating activities, community asset building, individual asset building, and providing access to capital.

We began organizing around the idea of transit-oriented development in 1998 when it was revealed that the Red Line was going through East Hollywood. We brought together the different stakeholders in the East Hollywood community including equity groups, business sectors, residents, seniors, and workers and starting doing visioning exercises. This visioning process was adopted as a specific plan by the City in 2001 as the Station Area Neighborhood Plan, a planning tool that would not just enshrine the vision of the community, but also implement it by laying out specific elements and service guidelines that developers had to comply with for any development within a .25 mile of a Red Line station.

That helped us prevent displacement and gentrification until today because this Station Area Plan and elements like affordable housing production, historic preservation, open space, greenery, sustainable, walkable, and pedestrian-friendly sustainable development. What really kept developers in check were height restrictions and limited parking. That’s where our equity and transit-oriented development visioning campaign began in 1998.

Since then, Thai Community Development Center has taken full advantage of that as the gatekeeper of equity in the area. For example, having our farmer’s markets there at the actual station to address food insecurity and provide access to fresh, healthy produce. We have planned a lot of activities around the transit-oriented community, including cultural promotion and preservation activities.

Now we’re building the Thai Town Marketplace—a social enterprise and business incubator that will provide the retail space for Metro Red Line Station at the Porto Plaza. It is an asset-building activity that will create 18 new businesses every three years, creating about 40 jobs

Thomas Yee: We know Los Angeles has made some progress, but if our vision is for transit options for everyone and affordable housing options to everyone, we’re not there yet. So, how else can we be bold to achieve this vision?

Jessica Meany: I spend a lot of time at Metro, which is more than just a bus and train agency. Metro builds our freeways, our roads, our streets. Taking a step back, Metro really is the funder. Over 70 percent of the funding for our streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, bus lanes, and trains comes from our county sales tax. We have four of them and that’s how we’re funding this transportation revolution.

For me, we need to get real about where our public dollars are going and why, who pays, and who benefits? At Metro, one of the things I’m both hopeful and concerned about is that all of our research shows that the biggest indicators for baking in access are race and income. For as long as I’ve been advocating at Metro, they’ve emphasized that everybody is equal. But our neighborhoods are really different, our ability to get around is really different, and our ability to have options is really different.

If you have discretionary income, are able-bodied, live close enough to get to work within a few miles of where your kids go to school, you’re not caring for kids or an older adult, and live downtown or somewhere served by scooters and jump bikes, yeah, it is a transportation revolution. With any those indicators though, it’s not. But we’re still doling out our shared tax dollars for mobility based on all neighborhoods being equal.

In order to shift that, Metro adopted what’s called Equity Focused Communities using race, income, and households with few cars to map across LA County where our high-need areas are. It remains to be seen whether or not we target real resources and move Metro away from thinking they’re good on equity when there’s a dedicated bus lane or stop for a bus that arrives every 45 minutes on a good day. We need more wrap-around policies at Metro not just for buses that show up every once in a while, but for high-quality service options.

We also need Metro to step up in a more collaborative way, which they are. Leveraging real money for affordable housing where we’re putting high-quality transit investment with a real targeted look at where those neighborhoods are and what we’re doing there beyond putting up a sign that says a bus is going to show up when it can.

We need a real intention to acknowledge the role that race and income play in access by targeting money and resources that the community gets to decide upon; how it’s spent and measuring whether or not we’re moving the needle.

For me, transportation is way more than how fast and how far; it involves shifting our frame to understand transportation as access to jobs and education and getting our transportation agency to really embody that a lot more.

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