Blog: Amplify

L.A. County Moves to Include Affordable Housing in its Public Transportation Planning

For the first time in its history, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has expanded its mission to include promoting affordable housing for low-income residents who ride public transportation throughout the county. 

Thanks to a voter-approved sales tax increase in 2008, Metro is spending $40 billion to make L.A.’s transit system one of the most robust in the country. While this will be a huge benefit to the region, expansion is attracting higher-income residents and driving up housing costs, which is moving lower-income residents away from the transportation upon which they rely every day.

The California Community Foundation (CCF) and other partners recognized that Metro expansion needs to be done equitably for residents and small business owners to protect the region’s most vulnerable, and advocated for this shift.

We spoke with Ann Sewill, CCF’s vice president of housing and economic development, to learn more.

Kim Bluitt: Why is Metro’s decision significant?

Ann Sewill: Metro leadership is making an unprecedented connection between affordable housing and transit and jobs, and finding that using their resources to support affordable housing will help maximize all the benefits of the county’s huge investment in transit.

Between 2000 and 2012, median rents increased by nearly 25 percent while the median income declined by 9 percent.[1] The average apartment is now $1,716/month, requiring an Angeleno to make $33/hour or $68,640/year.[2] Most Metro riders earn less than $35,000/year. Studies show that lower income residents who live close to transit will ride three times more often than higher income residents. Developing thousands of units around transit without regard to housing costs will push these lower income residents away from transportation they need, and replace them with higher income residents who will not use transit for as many trips. Metro’s move to ensure that local investments encourage preservation and production of housing for all income groups will make Los Angeles a more equitable, healthy place.

KB: What role did CCF and the philanthropic community play in moving this change forward?

AS: For four years, CCF has been building partnerships with other foundations like The California Endowment; other nonprofit groups working on housing, health, environmental, and transportation issues; and community organizing groups working with neighborhood residents engaged in local issues around transit development. These partners shared several goals, including encouraging the preservation and production of affordable housing, parks, bike paths, safe sidewalks, and good jobs around transit hubs; expanding resources to preserve and produce housing and jobs for low-income residents who make up the core ridership; and ensuring that residents in the neighborhoods have the tools and support they need to fully engage in local planning issues.

In 2013, this partnership completed a study of ways that transit agencies can support affordable housing and job development around transit hubs. The foundation representatives, nonprofit groups, and community residents met over many months with the Metro staff and board members to review the study findings. Eventually, the Metro board and staff agreed on the recommendations that appeared most promising, and the results of that process were the five recommendations recently approved by the Metro board.

KB: So this is really a success story around collaboration, advocacy, and going beyond grantmaking.

AS: Yes. For CCF, this work – known as our Smart Growth initiative – has been a collaborative planning process that draws together leaders from the public health, civic engagement, environmental justice, and affordable housing sectors. In the initiative’s first three years, we dedicated funding to grantee partners and helped build collaboratives across sectors that have engaged in shared learning, tested approaches to see what works and built trust.

KB: There has been national attention recently on gentrification and displacement in the L.A. neighborhood of Highland Park. How will this new motion address that trend and benefit all residents? 

AS: Right. Our transit system is attracting higher-income residents to traditionally lower-income neighborhoods, and long-time transit users are being pushed out by rising rents. Another example is L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, with three new stations opened since 2009. New residents are moving in, with the median rents rising by 15 percent, numbers of households owning a car rising by 7 percent, and percentage of households earning more than $50,000 rising by 10 percent.

Now imagine Los Angeles in 2035, with at least 200 transit stations and another 200 rapid bus stops serving 635,000 more households than we had in 2008 when we voted for transit expansion. Assuming that three quarters of these stations serve residential neighborhoods, we’d need about 1,600 new apartment units or houses around each station to house all of us – seniors, families with children, young singles, everyone. Starting today, that is only 80 new homes per station per year. That’s not very much. If we could build these 80 new homes each year around the station, and make sure that some were affordable for school teachers or bus drivers, while some were affordable for tech investors, professors, or doctors, we’d have successfully managed gentrification without displacement. And we’d have a more walkable, livable, healthy city for all.

KB: Why should policymakers and foundations across the country take note?

AS: Many major cities will experience tremendous population growth over the next several decades that can lead to challenges like inefficient transportation, soaring housing costs, pollution, and health problems. But to ensure that regions become more prosperous and sustainable for all residents, sectors must collaborate to handle this growth in a smart way. That’s what’s happening in Los Angeles now as Metro’s recent decision begins to address the critical and interconnected need for housing at a range of prices, jobs, and public spaces near transit. I know other groups around the country are thinking in this way and are poised to create better opportunities for all residents.

KB: What are the next steps for Metro and how will CCF and other funders remain involved?

AS: Metro will have the opportunity to put these new standards into effect on roughly 20 sites in the next decade, asking developers to ensure that more than one-third of new units are affordable. Metro, CCF and our partners will move ahead to establish a fund to help affordable housing developers and small businesses expand opportunities for low income-residents around transit. The fund should be operational by late 2015 and mission-related-investors will be welcomed. But we want to move fast and this urgency cannot be understated. Each day that passes results in real estate escalation and loss of opportunity to preserve the social fabric of places around transit.

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