Housing / 2013
Smart Growth for All: Affordable Housing Near Public Transit
Imagine the Los Angeles of 2050. Will it still have traffic-choked freeways, ever-increasing pollution, and neighborhoods divided by lines of wealth and poverty? Or will it have smog-busting transit and bike lanes, playgrounds and parks, and housing that everyone can afford? Public Counsel is using its legal muscle to help create a future for LA that is greener, more prosperous, and more livable. For the past few years, we have been focusing on ensuring that plans for the city’s public transit system include affordable housing, so that low-income residents can benefit as public transit reshapes the regional landscape. With an unprecedented influx in transit investment taking place in LA, the key question facing our communities is: how can development happen so that everyone benefits, and nobody is left behind? Transit corridor and transit-oriented development (TOD) is an increasingly popular strategy to improve our built environment while reducing carbon emissions. Thanks to the passage of three critical pieces of legislation—Assembly Bill 32, Senate Bill 375, and LA County Measure R—TOD is becoming a reality in LA. City planners estimate that 80% of new development in the city will be transit-adjacent, and the Mayor has appointed a Transit Corridors Cabinet to plan for dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods near transit. But with transit development comes both opportunity and risk, especially for existing low-income residents of transit areas. Mounting evidence shows that TOD can actually work against many of its stated goals, resulting in rising land value and housing costs, displacement of lower-income residents by higher-income residents with higher rates of vehicle ownership, and therefore—paradoxically—declining transit ridership. The need for affordable housing near transit is especially urgent in Los Angeles. LA is the most economically segregated metropolitan area in the country. Residents in the city’s existing station areas have median household incomes of less than $30,000 a year, significantly lower than the regional median. Nearly three-quarters of station area residents are renters and more vulnerable to displacement. Another reason for the urgency of equitable TOD in LA is the dissolution of California’s redevelopment agencies in 2012, which resulted in the loss of $64 million in annual economic development in LA alone. Public Counsel demonstrated the power of legal strategies to effect systemic change when it recently challenged the State’s attempt to take redevelopment funds targeted for affordable housing in eastern LA County. At a hearing, the judge asked Public Counsel’s pro bono attorney how losing such funding would cause immediate harm. The attorney provided sworn declarations showing, for example, that without funding for affordable housing, many families will be on the street or forced to remain in transitional shelters for a year or longer. One mother of three described how her family is packed into a single room where they have trouble sleeping, the kitchen is too small to cook an adequate meal, her 5-year-old daughter has to attend an unfamiliar school, and she lacks the permanent address she needs to find a job. At the end of the hearing, the judge granted a preliminary injunction protecting $38 million in affordable housing funds. Against the backdrop of this crisis in redevelopment funding, TOD is being touted as “Redevelopment 2.0.” But TOD can only help redevelop low-income neighborhoods to the benefit of existing residents if we put policies in place to make that happen, and ensure that those policies are effectively implemented. That’s where Public Counsel’s legal muscle comes in. Too often, resident and community voices are left out of major decisions affecting the build out of their neighborhoods. Too often, plans are made but not implemented. We have used our legal expertise in the past to ensure an open and accessible public process, and we have worked with our nonprofit clients to develop innovative policies that advance the interests of local residents. Building on our prior successes in South LA, the Cornfield Arroyo Seco specific plan area north of downtown, the 15 mile radius surrounding the City of Industry, and the southeast cities, Public Counsel will: (1) Advocate for the development and preservation of affordable housing and anti-displacement policies near transit; (2) Advance land use plans that represent the needs of vulnerable residents; and (3) Provide in-depth, one-on-one legal and policy assistance to nonprofit affordable housing developers, and to community-based organizations representing low-income residents, to help them participate in community planning processes. Working together, Public Counsel and our partners can ensure that transit-oriented development works for low-income communities, for the smart growth goals of the city, and for the environmental aspirations California shares with so many people throughout the world.
What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?
For the past two years, Public Counsel has worked with the Southeast Asian Community Alliance to develop a groundbreaking new land use plan for the transit-rich Cornfields Arroyo area north of downtown. The campaign focused on obtaining incentives for increased affordable housing, environmental justice, and good jobs. As a result of our efforts in providing lead legal and policy support, along with the efforts of other community partners, the plan is expected to be an effective tool for producing affordable housing in the area and for preventing displacement of existing residents. The plan is being touted as a model for transit planning throughout LA.
Public Counsel won a preliminary injunction this year, preventing the State from taking $38 million in affordable housing funds from the LA County Housing Authority. Acting on behalf of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, we protected these funds that are designated for affordable housing for low-income seniors, people who are homeless, families, and transition-age youth within 15 miles of the City of Industry, which includes many areas around transit.
Our staff attorneys led a team of lawyers in reaching an agreement, in 2011, with the developer of the Lorenzo project in South LA, in which the developer agreed to concessions worth $9.5 million. The Lorenzo project is the largest of its kind along the city’s planned Expo Line extension. The agreement delivered a wide range of community benefits, including 7,500 square feet, rent free, dedicated to community-based health care services, and 5% of the units built to be made affordable to people who earn less than 50% of the area median income.
With Public Counsel’s leadership, the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles engaged in a strategic planning process; finalized its vision, mission, and principles; solidified its membership base of 20 diverse organizations; strengthened its infrastructure; and developed the key parameters of a citywide equitable TOD campaign.
Public Counsel represented the interests of low-income tenants whose affordable housing was at risk of being lost in Los Angeles’ rapidly gentrifying coastal zone, which already had a limited supply of affordable housing. In 2011, we reached a historic settlement with HUD and the owners of the Holiday Venice apartment complex that provides for 20 years of affordability provisions and protects current tenants from being displaced.
We are engaged in a long-term campaign in the southeast cities (Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Maywood, and South Gate) to increase families’ access to child care and green space through changes to those cities’ general plans and zoning codes.
Public Counsel is providing legal advocacy to preserve a 400-bed homeless shelter that is at risk of being shut down or forced to relocate by the 710 freeway expansion.
Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.
The community-based organizations we will work with include East LA Community Corporation, Southeast Asian Community Alliance, Little Tokyo Service Center, and SAJE. We will also work on TOD planning strategies with the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing.
In addition, Public Counsel is a founding member of the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles, a coalition of 20 groups working to ensure that all residents and workers in the city have a seat at the table as TOD plans are developed and implemented.
Finally, we partner with the California Affordable Housing Law Project, and with major law firms like Katten Muchin Rosenman that donate pro bono legal services to our efforts, in order to maximize our impact.
Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?
We expect to complete the following work plan for this project:
(1) Advocate for the production and preservation of affordable housing, along with anti-displacement policies, near transit in LA County.
(2) Mobilize at least 10 other organizations and coalitions to advocate for the production and preservation of affordable housing near transit in LA County.
(3) Provide in-depth, one-on-one TOD-related policy assistance to at least 5 community-based organizations working in low-income neighborhoods in LA County.
(4) Provide in-depth, one-on-one general (transactional) legal services to at least 20 nonprofit organizations working for affordable housing or shelter for people who are homeless or lower-income, including in TOD.
Public Counsel uses a comprehensive case and data tracking program—the ProLaw database—to track a wide variety of quantifiable measures of effectiveness and efficiency.
In addition, after closing every legal matter, we ask our clients to evaluate our work. The best measure of our success will be that our clients, community partners, and residents will report a stronger voice in shaping the communities they live in and serve.
Finally, the TOD plans with which we are engaged will contain language advancing affordable housing and anti-displacement, and the legal matters we work on will result in increased or preserved funding for affordable housing.
How will your project benefit Los Angeles?
Our project will use legal and policy tools to help lift up the voices of residents and community organizations engaged in planning for transit-oriented development in Los Angeles. If the process of developing TOD plans meaningfully incorporates such voices, those plans will result in documented benefits of equitable TOD, including affordable housing for residents with low income around major transit stops; increased community access to jobs, healthcare, and fresh food; increased public transportation ridership; increased public investment and economic activity; and reduced traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and commuting times. Most of all, as Los Angeles develops its transit infrastructure, it will do so in a manner that allows it to retain its socio-economic, racial, and cultural diversity, and that does not push out existing communities and residents.
A number of affordable housing advocates and community-based organizations have sought our legal assistance in influencing local TOD planning processes and in advancing affordable housing and anti-displacement policies near transit in South and East LA. Particularly after our success in achieving innovative policies to advance affordable housing and economic development in the Cornfields Arroyo, there is great momentum to achieve similar innovations in other local plans and in citywide planning processes.
Specifically, through this project:
• Organizations working to advance affordable housing near transit will have legal tools and increased capacity to shape the development of their neighborhoods;
• The views of community-based organizations serving low-income people in Los Angeles will be represented in TOD planning processes; and
• Proposed California transit legislation will contain language that supports low-income communities.
What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?
If we are successful in achieving our goals for equitable transit-oriented development in 2050, Los Angeles will preserve its stock of quality housing that is affordable for low-income residents, and will use the transit build out as an opportunity to build even more affordable housing. Public TOD planning processes will be transparent, and will include input from low-income community advocates at all stages. Most importantly, no person will live on the streets or in substandard or overcrowded conditions due to a lack of affordable housing, and no one will be displaced as a result of transit development. Existing residents will benefit along with new residents from equitable TOD.
We envision healthy communities where residents are not segregated economically, where there is equal access to affordable housing located near jobs, and where schools, healthcare, groceries, and other essential services are within walking distance. And we envision a Los Angeles that is an environmental leader, with cleaner air and reduced carbon emissions.