Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What You Should Know About Transit-Oriented Communities: How Metro Supports Equitable Land Use

Tomorrow, the Metro Planning & Programming Committee will consider approving the next round of funding for Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) Planning Grants, a core part of Metro’s strategy for aligning transportation and land use policy. These grants are a key funding source for local jurisdictions to fix outdated land use plans that create regulatory barriers to smart land use near transit. New this round is a focus on equity–both in terms of which communities are prioritized for funding and in ensuring participation by socioeconomically disadvantaged community members–as well as a stronger set of required policy elements, including affordable housing. Combined with other funding mechanisms for TOC investments, like the new eligibility in Measure M Local Return, these planning grants represent a significant commitment to fostering more equitable communities near transit.

These grants are one piece of a broader strategy, so we wanted to take the opportunity to talk about TOCs: What are they? How does Metro support them? And, how do they meet the needs of our communities for healthy, sustainable, and equitable neighborhoods?

Background

Los Angeles is in the midst of an epic housing crisis: rents are surging, incomes are stagnant, and the dream of homeownership is out of reach for most working families. For decades, the region’s affordable housing strategy was to build “drive ‘til you qualify” subdivisions on the sprawling fringes of the region, leaving our transportation system to carry the burden of long-distance commuters.  A recent survey by the Los Angeles Business Council (LABC) of the region’s employers “found that as employees have had to go farther afield to find affordable housing, nearly every employer reported that more than 25 percent of their employees spent more than 90 minutes getting to and from work.” Housing costs are why so many of California’s working families are moving to lower-cost states like Arizona and Nevada, even if there are fewer job opportunities.

The lack of supportive land use policy is the main reason so many of our region’s transportation projects only achieve marginal benefits. The imbalance between housing in the San Fernando Valley and jobs on the Westside absorbed all the new capacity created by the Sepulveda Pass I-405 widening, leaving commutes just as slow and unreliable as before the project. The 210 Freeway extension into the Inland Empire was quickly overwhelmed with long-distance commuters within a couple years of opening. Now that sprawl is finally reaching geographic limits, existing urban neighborhoods are absorbing an increasing share of the region’s growth. More people living closer to work and amenities is a good thing for regional mobility and sustainability goals, but displacing low-income transit riders from neighborhoods with good transit service to far-flung suburbs can cancel out those environmental benefits while exacerbating social and economic inequality.

Earlier this year, we identified coordinating housing and transportation policy as one of our six #JustGrowth agenda priorities for our work in 2017. If we improve neighborhoods with safer streets and better mobility options, but community members can’t afford to stay there when we’re done, then we will have failed. As Los Angeles County’s primary transportation planning and funding agency, Metro has an outsized impact on land use patterns throughout the region. Investing in Place aims to leverage that impact for good–to protect and increase housing affordability in culturally diverse neighborhoods with employment, educational, and recreational opportunities and an overall high quality of life.

Metro’s Approach to TOCs

As we look to address housing, particularly in the upcoming Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) update, we wanted to start with an overview of what Metro is already doing on the issue. Metro’s Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) initiative is a suite of policy and funding strategies that leverage Metro’s property and funding resources to achieve land use goals near transit. TOCs are a variation on the Transit Oriented Development that Metro has done on its properties for a long time with an important distinction: by focusing on the “community” rather than the “development,” Metro is looking beyond its own property lines to shape how the neighborhood evolves rather than building projects that maximize financial return.

At their core, TOCs are compact, walkable, and bikeable places near transit. But, there’s a lot more to it than that. Metro’s new TOC Toolkit identifies 10 characteristics that define a successful TOC:

  1. Compact Design
  2. Complete Neighborhoods
  3. Street and Network Connectivity
  4. Site Layout, Parking, and Building Design
  5. Affordable Housing
  6. Commercial Stabilization, Business Retention and Expansion
  7. Transit Prioritization, Accessibility, and Area Design
  8. Parking Management
  9. Transportation Demand Management
  10. Pedestrian and Bicycle Circulation

With this more comprehensive approach, Metro acknowledges that TOCs are comprised of both physical elements like the street network and building layout as well as human elements like whether people can afford to live or own a small business there. This wider view facilitates much-needed conversations about the connections between transit, development, and affordability that underscore community concerns about gentrification and displacement.

Metro TOC Strategies

Metro promotes TOCs with a few different programs that leverage its roles as both a partner to local jurisdictions with land use authority and as a direct project developer:

  • Transit Oriented Communities Planning Grants

Through this grant program, Metro provides funding and technical assistance to cities (and the County for unincorporated areas) to update planning documents and land use regulations that inhibit development near transit. With the fifth round of grants about to open, this program now has a stronger focus on ensuring that plans include all the 10 TOC characteristics, including housing affordability. This program also now funds feasibility studies for tax increment finance districts to potentially create new funding mechanisms for public infrastructure, including transportation and housing.

  • Joint Development Program

Metro’s Joint Development Program builds mixed-use projects on underutilized Metro property, such as construction staging areas that are no longer needed, or station portals that can accommodate construction above. In July 2015, the Metro board set a new objective to make 35% of housing units affordable to residents earning less than 60% of median income, across all of Metro’s joint development projects. This new policy allows Metro to discount up to 30% of the lease value of its land to developers to incentivize affordable housing.

  • Transit Oriented Communities Loan Program

This is a new revolving loan fund to finance affordable housing projects near transit and help fill the funding gap left by the dissolution of community redevelopment agencies several years ago. Metro has contributed $10 million to this fund ($9 million for affordable housing and $1 million for small business assistance), which is expected to be leveraged through a combination of other public and private funding sources.

  • Local Return Eligibility

Under Measure M, TOC-related expenditures are eligible for Local Return. As we say in our analysis of the Measure M Guidelines, it is not clear exactly what this eligibility means in terms of what kinds of projects Measure M can fund. That lack of definition is both a strength and a weakness. It provides flexibility for local jurisdictions that are leading on the creation of TOCs, but broad eligibility carries with it the risk that this new funding won’t be spent on the most cost-effective strategies. We hope to add more clarity to these guidelines as they are finalized in the coming months.

These strategies are just the starting point. The LRTP provides an opportunity to evaluate how well they are working and what gaps remain for funding and policy. We’d love to hear your thoughts on Metro’s TOC initiative and what you think Metro can do to support more equitable communities. Please email us at jessica@investinginplace.org.

Next Steps:

  • The TOC Planning Grant guidelines for round 5 go to Metro’s Planning & Programming Committee on Wednesday at 2:00 PM.
  • The Measure M Guidelines that address the use of Local Return for TOCs is scheduled for adoption by the Metro board at their June meeting.


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