April 16, 2021 - From the April, 2021 issue

Outgoing SCAG President Rex Richardson on Empowering Cities for Growth

In September 2020, SCAG adopted Connect SoCal—the 2020–2045 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy that envisions how the region will plan for and sustainably accommodate growth over the next 25 years.TPR sat down with outgoing SCAG President and City of Long Beach Vice Mayor, Rex Richardson, to discuss how the nation's largest metropolitan planning organization was able to find consensus on focusing new housing development near jobs and transit to balance future mobility and housing needs with economic, environmental and public health goals. President Richardson opines on the funding challenges—brought in large part by the dissolution of CRAs by the state legislature in 2021—and fiscal disincentives that inhibit local governments from implementing the bold solutions needed to address the complex and cascading crises—of housing affordability, homelessness, public health, equity, economic recovery, and climate change—that cities face today. 


"The best thing the state can do is correct their problem that they gave to cities when they eliminated redevelopment in 2012. Give us the ability to build.”

“Now is time to make big bold investments in things like alternative models of homeownership that reduce barriers, cancellation of student debt, and massive investments into education to make it more accessible”—Rex Richardson

As the outgoing president of SCAG and the Vice Mayor of Long Beach, what have been your regional priorities and the SCAG achievements that should define your term?

Rex Richardson: Coming into my role as president, we were already facing a crisis on many fronts in Southern California—an economic crisis caused by COVID-19, a public health crisis that we haven't seen in a century, and we were already dealing with the housing crisis and seeing the real impacts of climate change in our community. All of that together wrote our agenda for us. We had to be responsive to those needs, and we had to maintain our focus as a planning agency into the future because if we don't get this right today, we're looking at a very different reality for Southern California in 25 years.

Our priorities were to land our Connect SoCal Plan, our 25-year regional transportation plan and sustainable community strategy—setting a clear vision that is centered on equity and experiences of people. I want my six-year-old and my three-year-old to live in a healthy and thriving Southern California 25 years from now.

Secondly, SCAG works in the space of housing and transportation policy and we needed to be responsive to the equity mandate. Cities and regions around the country were confronted with the reality that there are very different experiences based on race within our communities. Housing policy is one of those areas that has been laced with institutional racism from the very beginning, so to assume that racism doesn't exist or that it's not an issue for today is to assume that stars don't exist in the sky. We should assume that policies are institutionalized based on a set of values laced with race and gender; housing is one of them, it's not an exception.

As an agency that thinks about long-range planning for housing, SCAG has to be sensitive to the ways in which institutions and systems can advance or eliminate racism. We have to play a role as a regional planning agency at identifying these things, calling out institutional racism as a public health crisis, and making sure that the strategies that we deploy are examples for our region and for other regions. So, we declared institutional racism a public health crisis, began a process focused on establishing an internal-external equity framework for Southern California, and are beginning the process of charting an inclusive regional recovery. All of those things were important priorities for SCAG this year.

The last thing I'll say is that the regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) is a process that we are mandated to engage in. We were able to, in the midst of this crisis, land a near unanimous vote on a methodology that prioritizes transit and jobs and building housing in relation to where people go to work and where they have access to transit. Although there was great disagreement on what the macro number was, there was near-unanimous consensus on the methodology on how we allocate those numbers. 

Faced with a global pandemic, a dramatic loss of jobs, and a racial reckoning, what has been SCAG’s regional policy agenda for Southern California?

I think we all have a responsibility to the next generation, to our own families, and to our broader communities to acknowledge that Southern California has great potential. But also, we have some of the deepest poverty in America. We have communities with some of the worst air quality in America. So I want to see Southern California known for how we met this moment on equity and how we began to identify and systemically support communities of concern, which is a term defined in our Connect SoCal plan. We need to make a significant commitment to that because we are the largest MPO in America; what we do, others follow. And so this is an opportunity to really shift the nation. If anyone would want to talk about what was the common thread of my presidency, it was that we embraced and advanced equity for cities within Southern California to set the stage for the advancement of equity across America.

This also is the first time a millennial, someone with my worldview, has led the Southern California region, and our reality is a bit different. I was 18 when 911 happened. We saw everything change—from the way we think about privacy and national security to the impacts of the great recession and how it made it more difficult for our generation to buy homes. The economic reality showed us that it requires more education to achieve the same level of prosperity that your parents or grandparents achieved, yet it takes longer—10 years longer— to buy a home and begin the process of building wealth.

Now, we're coming into leadership and our worldview is very different. From our standpoint, we need to do something big and bold, New Deal style. The New Deal came out of the Great Depression, but we've had a Great Recession, a global pandemic, and a second Great Recession coming out of it, where's our New Deal?

Now is time to make big bold investments in things like alternative models of homeownership that reduce barriers, cancellation of student debt, and massive investments into education to make it more accessible. We need to make sure that we're thinking big around climate, we don't have as much of a runway as other generations have had. We need a massive national level investment into public health and housing; it’s what this moment calls for.

Elaborate on how this past year’s challenges have affected the consensus assumptions behind the Connect SoCal plan adopted by your board?  Many regions clearly are now reassessing their economic recovery, public transit and public health planning about how constituents will live, work and play going forward.

Over the course of the past year that has come up, but there wasn't enough data just yet. We just rolled out our regional data platform at the right time, because we're going to need to be looking at data more in real time and seeing how trends are changing in this post-pandemic region. We've laid the foundation with Connect SoCal and the conversation now is how do we build a post-pandemic region and post-pandemic cities?

The pandemic has revealed much about what’s important to people and forced planning authorities to reconsider their modelsFor example, will employees return to workplaces full time, or will there be a new hybrid work arrangement?  Will the public return in numbers to using public transit? Will greater appreciation of the need for EDI force public services to be recalibrated?  Is Open Space more valued than thought? Given the aforementioned, how might SCAG’s planning & density assumptions—that now undergird the consensus that you were able to reach last year—change in coming years?

Once we have about 9 to 12 months of data, we're going to have to do another study. We're beginning that work now to figure out what adjustments need to be made to our assumptions on Connect SoCal or whatever transportation modeling we're doing. I think that just has to happen.

The pandemic has taken issues that we're not receiving primetime attention and elevated them. The digital divide was something tacked on to a housing discussion or tacked on to transportation. ‘Dig once’ was something we kept hearing about. Now we have to think about broadband as a standalone planning category.

Infrastructure in your neighborhood is not really equipped for mass data through a cell network, and we know that lower income communities use a cell network to connect to the internet through hotspots at a more significant level at a higher level than high-resource communities.  There's a nexus now around cell infrastructure and how they are widening the digital divide.  Take access to fiber, for example. It’s very cheap to expand if your policies align and allow the private sector to come deploy fiber. So now you have to start thinking about all these things as standalone priorities. It didn't happen before. In all of that, I think the more we switch gears and get in tune with digital divide work, I think that will help stabilize what our modeling looks like for transportation. Those coming in are connected.

Last month, SCAG approved its 6th Cycle RHNA allocation plan. Elaborate on SCAG’s process for determining those allocations and how you, as President, again, found consensus.

This is Politics 101; you have to figure out where your interests intersect and that's where you build. SCAG has six counties with very different interests and needs, but we're all interested in jobs. We're all interested in quality of life in our communities and eliminating homelessness. And so, by figuring out what makes the most sense, we were able to build consensus there.

It just so happened there was enough consensus across Riverside, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties around connecting housing to jobs and transit. For Orange County, their issue was really not about the methodology but the total number of housing units. And so understanding that nuance and we don’t have to agree with it but ultimately it’s an HCD decision. Whether the number’s 1.3 million or 850,000 or 600,000, ultimately, the methodology of prioritizing transit and jobs makes sense. It's easier to communicate to people. To place the significant numbers of housing where there's no access transit and the jobs are not there is not a recipe for success. So, once we kept the big picture, it was easy to build consensus.

Let’s pivot to a governance question. Is “local government” capable of meeting the challenges you have identified? Or, are the bold policy challenges you have noted better addressed at the state level- as some California legislators assert? 

I don't think the State needs to usurp local government; we need to unlock the power of local government. Local government is taking on more responsibilities and delivering more services than it ever has any other time in history, including homelessness and permanent supportive housing, mental health, food security, basic income, workforce development, and public health. Long Beach is one of three cities in the entire state with its own public health agency, and what we can see is that now, in terms of the vaccinations, we're a national model, because we've built our local capacity over time to do so.

Local government has the least barriers of entry to develop leadership as it's less partisan and very few local governments actually have party caucuses. Typically, there are fewer special interests involved in local government than in state and federal government. People don't believe in the gridlock in Washington, but people do believe in their council, their mayor, and their school board members.

We need to unleash local government. We fund local government through unstable sources like sales tax, transient occupancy tax, oil taxes, and what we saw from the recession is that those went away. Our ability to deliver basic services like police officers, firefighters, and paramedics was placed in jeopardy because of the way we fund local government. The answer is to make local government more secure. Let's figure out better ways to incentivize and relieve some of the burdens.  Let’s have the state figure out how to carry these burdens of long-term pensions that are weighing us down. How can we help support local government so people's quality of life can be better?

Advertisement

It is argued by some that local governments don’t have the will and capacity to build affordable housing units at scale and that the state therefore needs to step in and supplant local control over zoning and planning. What, in your opinion, ought to be the State’s role re: meeting the regions’ housing production goals?

I don't want to say that local governments have been innocent in the housing production conversation because there are different social costs across regions and values may be different. Our understanding of our capacity around housing is what it means to live—do you need a front or backyard? Can you live in an ADU? Our values are different based on culture, class, and a whole set of factors. But I think the state government does have the responsibility to put up the guardrails.

The state isn't going to be able to make local land use decisions, but what they can do is provide funding, guardrails, and timelines. If a city cannot produce housing, then there needs to be some accountability for local control. I know there's been a great deal of conversation about stripping away the power of local government, but I think we should be looking at this like a shot clock. If you have a project that fits the zoning but they have the ability to slow your project; it gets more and more expensive.

The Public Works director may take weeks to do their inspection; the fire marshal may get six weeks; and the plan check gets six weeks. This process is inefficient, burdensome, costly, and unfair. There should be a shot clock. If you cannot get through your entitlement process in a set amount of time, then you lose your ability to approve or deny that project. There should also be some fair ability for local developers to appeal to a broader agency.

Let's say your local government continues to be a bad actor. You should be able to appeal to a regional housing oversight agency that is a neutral arbiter. It doesn't take away your  local control; you still get the first bite at the apple, and if you're making good decisions, it'll never get appealed—only in cases where you haven't zoned appropriately and you're not doing the things that actually help us advance the region. It could be a county government or a regional government that could play that role; it doesn't have to be the state. The best thing the state can do is correct their problem that they gave to cities when they eliminated redevelopment in 2012. Give us the ability to build.

Elaborate.

Local governments will tell you that CRAs were our most significant tool to produce housing. Twenty percent of every dollar went to produce or preserve affordable housing. It takes about five years to produce one unit of affordable housing from site acquisition, to design, to entitlements, to construction. The action went into effect in 2013, and we found ourselves in a housing crisis in 2018; one plus one equals two.

We knew that this was going to delay our ability to keep pace with growth, and that's exactly what happened. We want to build housing—it creates jobs and economic opportunity and it improves economic security within neighborhoods—but we don't have the capital to do so. We've seen a number of attempts to recreate tax increment financing, but none of them have really been embraced by cities: enhanced infrastructure financing districts, community revitalization districts, affordable housing districts.

Redevelopment is a long-term strategy anyway; you'd have to let tax Increment grow. If you were to establish a tax increment district and potentially offer low-cost bonds through an infrastructure bank or federal program, we can bond against that at low cost, which could potentially get us what we need for housing today. If not, we just have to think bigger, more regionally. How do you generate dedicated sources of revenue specifically for affordable housing on a regional level? Then, bond against that on a regional level to advance those dollars now. But it can't be market-rate finance, it would have to be low-cost, public financed bonds.

You are also the vice mayor of the city of Long Beach; you have asserted that while cities want to build housing, they are hamstrung by fiscal disincentives caused by the passage of Prop 13 in the late 70’s—a policy too politically hot to handle in the Capitol. Has your SCAG board ever pressed for reversing the fiscal disincentivizes cities have long been burdened with when asked to facilitate more housing production?

We need to look at our state tax. What incentivizes a city to build housing? If we know that by building housing and attracting people to our cities, we get a portion of the income taxes that those folks make, then I am now invested, not only in growth, but ensuring that those people make good money too, because the more money they make that's the ability for us to be able to directly provide emergency services, access to open space, police officers, firefighters, and park programs, because you are thriving in your city.

If a city is only incentivized by sales tax, then that city is thinking about how many car dealerships or shopping malls it can get. That does not incentivize the city to think about housing or growth. We have to think about how we incentivize people, and by changing our tax code so that cities are rewarded for growth in cities will have that incentive to grow.

The legislation that keeps coming back to the state for three years now suggests that there's a supply-side solution to this that will be remedied with by-right upzoning. In Long Beach, if you upzone a property, is the value of that property going to increase or decrease?

It would increase. So, the way we've handled up zoning is that we've targeted and connected our land-use plans in areas where it's going to bring other assets to the community like our downtown. When you add additional height and less parking requirements, it's going to have multiplier effects on your ability to produce sales tax because you create a more livable, walkable, and dense downtown. You have to think about the social cost of adding density in areas that don't have the social contracts and infrastructure in place—parks, open space rules, etc, I think creates a different problem. And so we have to think about  how you connect and incentivize those things to happen. If a city is producing and zoning for housing, then they should receive a preference on park bond funds statewide, SB 1 funds on roads and streets first and lands on growth, right? I mean, if you're, if you're doing the right things, you're going to need to invest in more open space, have more walkable streets, all those things require money. So, let's reward them. Let's give those cities who are growing more a bigger bite at the apple.

Given SCAG’s role in transportation planning, elaborate on how you imagine our post-pandemic region‘s mobility policies will evolve?

Well, we of course saw a decline in transit ridership, but we also saw less carpooling and ride sharing. So, more cars came back on the road, because there were fewer people in each car. From an air quality standpoint, we took a step backward. Plus, we’ve started to see that the impacts of climate change are now making it more difficult to reach attainment levels because of wildfires and a whole host of things. We saw the worst levels of smog in a decade in LA, so that increases the urgency.

In my opinion, you’re going to see significant investments in making transit cleaner and have more capacity. I think we'll see more urgency on cleaning up vehicles. It was during this pandemic period that Newsom announced the 2035 deadline to get rid of internal combustion automotive vehicles, so I think you're going to see more of an effort. The way I hope we respond to it is by looking at how we can begin to build the fleets of the future with advanced technology.  A lot of this stuff may not be commercially available yet, or it may not be economically feasible for a person, like a teacher, to be able to drive a fuel-efficient zero emission vehicle. That's going to have to change. And I think there will be more urgency because of the alignment of COVID and climate and all of those things together.

While we record this interview, a federal infrastructure agenda is being curated in Washington. From your position with SCAG and as the Vice Mayor of one of California’s largest cities, what do you want included in the Biden Administration infrastructure package?

I want to see a few things.  I want to see a real commitment to clean infrastructure that sets the stage to clean our truck fleets coming out of the port. There's 18,000 trucks that need to be cleaned. Let's say they go hydrogen or let's say they go all electric, the infrastructure is not in place.  The grid needs to have that sort of capacity. Now is a significant opportunity for us to begin to really expand that infrastructure, which is going to have direct impacts on air quality, and, you know, life expectancy. So, I think that's something I want to see.

Secondly, I know there's a lot of focus on bridges and roads—and fixing crumbling roads is very, very popular—but I want to see us fix some crumbling buildings. Right now, that is not reflected in what's being proposed. I want to see Congress cutting some ribbon and breaking ground on buildings, community centers, indoor gyms, schools and things like that.

I know that the way we're thinking about it is by using HR 2, the Moving Forward Act, as the foundation. Well, folks like Maxine Waters and others advocated for housing to be a part of HR 2. So, I want to see housing infrastructure be a part of this package. So, we need to make sure we have green infrastructure, that crumbling buildings are part of the conversation when we talk about crumbling roads, and housing infrastructure.

Lastly, President Richardson, you began our interview by noting that you were on the front edge of the millennial generation, born in ‘83. Do you find your generation and your peers want to be in political power?

I don't know that people want to be in politics. I think that people want the ability to self-determine the outcome of their future. That could mean politics via Bernie Sanders and socialist revolution. To some it may mean joining the school board to fix a problem. But I don't see a lot of people being driven by some nostalgic sense of serving because my father and my grandfather served. What I get is that we're the ones we've been waiting for, so we have a social responsibility to help lead. Someone told me when I first start getting in office that people run for two reasons: to be somebody or to do something. I think my generation, if we step up and move and run for office, it’s mostly because we want to do something and there's plenty to do.

<

Advertisement

© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.