Interview with L.A. THRIVES “We’re Committed To Equitable TOD”

There’s a relatively-new player on the scene in pressing for preserving and building affordable housing along Southern California transit lines: L.A. THRIVES. It’s a coalition effort, comprised of organizations and individuals with great track records on making L.A. healthier and more livable. Our interview was conducted over email in late April.

Banner from L.A. THRIVES website
Banner from L.A. THRIVES website

Tell our readers a bit of your individual backgrounds.

I’m Jeff Schaffer, vice president and market leader for Southern California for Enterprise Community Partners. I’ve spent the past 25 years in local and international community development work, with a consistent theme of addressing the housing needs of low-income people.

And I’m Beth Steckler, deputy director at Move LA, and I’ve been working on housing affordability, land use and transit expansion in Los Angeles for about 20 years.

L.A. THRIVES logo
L.A. THRIVES logo

What is L.A. THRIVES?

We’re a handful of groups working to make communities in LA County better places to live – especially lower-income areas. Our acronym stands for Transit, Housing, Resources, and Investment for a Vibrant Economy. We’ve got a couple of local foundations (California Community Foundation, and Liberty Hill), the local offices of two national community development powerhouses (Enterprise Community Partners and Low Income Investment Fund) and three groups working on transit expansion (Move LA), housing affordability (So. Calif. Assn. of Non-Profit Housing), and health (Prevention Institute).

Officially, we’re committed to equitable TOD, which is shorthand for transit-oriented development that prioritizes investments in affordable homes, that protects the social fabric of neighborhoods, and makes it easier for residents to walk, bike, and take transit to shops and services.

Together we’ve been breaking down silos by bringing together, in the same room, people from all kinds of groups working locally on these issues, from the Planning Department at the city of L.A. to Metro to community groups like SAJE and L.A. Voice. We’ve discovered that we’ve got a lot of common agendas, but also different perspectives on how to make communities better. And, we now have a website and blog to help get our ideas out into the world.

How did L.A. THRIVES get started?

After the passage of Measure R in 2008, we came to recognize that this huge investment – unprecedented in the whole country – in the expansion of the region’s transit system was silent with regard to the type of communities that would be built along the new transit corridors and the impact to the people already living there. L.A. THRIVES came together around a shared agenda of ensuring that people of all income levels have the opportunity to live along these new transit corridors, with access to jobs, education, healthy foods, safe and walkable streets, and all the amenities that make for healthy and thriving communities.

How do we get our act together as a community to make sure that the transit expansion has many winners and as few losers as possible? What do we need to do so that transit brings our communities a shared prosperity? A great example of reaching across silos to bring shared prosperity is the way Metro is dealing with the huge number of construction jobs created under Measure R. First, they are all good jobs, all union jobs. Second, ten percent of the work is being done by people that have a hard time finding work even in a great economy – people who are homeless, no GED, getting welfare, criminal history, veterans, etc. It wasn’t transportation planners at Metro who came up with this idea, it was the unions and LAANE working with community-based job trainers like PV Jobs.

Why is affordable housing near transit important? Why not just build lots of housing and let the market decide?

It’s important to have affordable rents near stations because most transit riders are low income – three quarters with incomes below $25K. If we ignore this reality we risk two things: huge social disruption in “hot markets” as people lose their homes and, pushing our riders away from the very transit they are using.

Building lots of housing is important and we need to do that. But we need more because we have a basic disconnect: new apartments rent for $2,200, affordable to someone in the $80-$90K bracket which is way more than our transit riders have. If we just let the market decide then we could end up with a bunch of luxury TOD apartments filled with people who own a couple of cars and like to drive. At L.A. THRIVES we think we need to work across silos to effectively address this kind of displacement. 

Also the cost of car ownership is prohibitive for many low income people. Being priced out of the central urban core, means added expense and loss of opportunity.

It feels like a lot of affordable housing mechanisms have been difficult to use in Los Angeles. Inclusionary Zoning was debilitated by the courts. Density bonuses are effective, but in a limited way. Very limited resources from the federal, state, and city governments. What works? Are there inspiring programs elsewhere that could be adopted by L.A.?

Most of those programs deal with new construction, which is important, but far more people in transit neighborhoods live in older apartments and we need to be looking at ways to help them stay in their homes. The city of L.A. has 630,000 rent controlled apartments and more active enforcement of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance in “hot markets” would protect them from rising rents. Santa Monica is a good local example with consistent enforcement of rent control and lots of new market-rate apartments and condos – about a third of all new residences have affordable rents.

You’re right, the courts have taken away much of the cities’ power and funding to create new apartments with affordable rents and to protect the ones we have. The Palmer decision on Inclusionary Housing, the Ellis Act, the loss of CRA are just three examples. But there are good models out there. The city of L.A. recently adopted the Cornfields Arroyo Seco Specific Plan that provides density increases as incentive for providing affordable housing and community serving amenities, rather than just upzoning.

Mayor Garcetti and Councilmember O’Farrell have been vocal in their support of more affordable housing near transit. What can L.A. City do to foster more affordable TOD?

We’ve already seen strong leadership from Mayor Garcetti in his role as chair of the Metro Board promoting policies that support affordable TOD. The cities should also adopt citywide planning policies facilitating the siting of affordable housing along transit corridors and serving other community development and preservation purposes. We were excited to see the Mayor include $10 million for affordable housing in his new budget, and hope to build on that. The cities can also do more to leverage new funding from state cap and trade revenues through better coordination with developers, LADOT, and Metro. We already know what tools work within a range of scenarios, so while we should respect the unique concerns of every neighborhood, we shouldn’t be starting from scratch in every community plan update or specific plan.

Any impression of incoming Metro CEO Phil Washington? His TOD record sounds pretty good. What role/s do you see Metro playing in fostering more affordable housing?

Our counterparts in Denver at Mile High Connects, Denver’s local transit equity network, have worked well with Phil Washington over the years. Under his leadership Denver has made great strides in expanding transit while addressing the concerns of low-income constituents. We look forward to seeing him bring that kind of energy to LA Metro.

At the end of March, the Metro board approved a motion by Mayor Garcetti, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, and four others, which called upon staff to bring back specific plans to advance affordable housing as a Metro priority. We look for strong and decisive action in the coming months, including investment in a fund to support affordable housing along transit corridors

How about preservation? What mechanisms can preserve housing that’s currently affordable?

Preservation isn’t just a side note to this conversation. We think preservation is equally important to building new units. Throughout Los Angeles County, there are close to 200,000 homes near transit that are affordable to people making $25-42K/year. It’s not nearly enough for the million plus low income families that rely on transit, but it’s still important. Driving 60 percent of all new homes near transit over the next 20 years will place enormous upward market pressure on those rents. The few cities like Los Angeles that have rent control should be putting more resources into enforcement. There’s another set of apartments that were built with public subsidies but the rent restrictions are time-limited and running out. Preserving those homes will also take additional public money.

If you had a magic wand and could immediately change any one thing about Los Angeles streets and livability, what would it be?

If we had a magic wand, first we would ensure that no Angeleno is paying more than half of their income on housing. The second thing would be to have a shared vision among all the players – neighborhood activists, business groups, Metro, environmentalists, developers, city council offices, renters, transportation engineers, unions, etc – that we can meld the various interests and market forces into strategies that hit the sweet spot of a shared prosperity for all.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We find ourselves at a pivotal moment. We’re seeing new game-changing resources like Measure R. We’re seeing the State stepping up to the plate with new resources for a wide variety of strategies for creating sustainable, connected communities through the Cap-and-Trade program. This pivotal moment is the right time to raise up equity in the conversations about access to transit, jobs, education, health care, healthy foods, safe and walkable streets so that all residents have the opportunity to thrive. That’s what L.A. THRIVES is all about.

  • It’s worth noting that Santa Monica is planning to build less than 5,000 new homes between 2010 and 2030, the vast majority of which will likely be apartments, not condos. And, last night, the Council voted 4-to-3 to make it more difficult to build housing on Santa Monica’s major commercial boulevards, so we will see if Santa Monica will be able to reach even that modest goal. For a city whose population has increased by less than 10,000 since 1960, I’m not sure that constitutes “lots of” new housing being built there.

    As for Santa Monica’s affordable housing production program, it is a result of a voter-approved amendment to the city charter. It requires about one-third of new units built to be subsidized affordable. However, most of that comes as a result of a lengthy and costly discretionary review process on a project-by-project basis. In Santa Monica, it is very cumbersome and requires a lot of staff time. Because each project is negotiated, the city can enforce its affordable housing production program despite the Palmer ruling. I’m not sure how that would scale up for a city the size Los Angeles, though.

  • AlecMitchell

    If Santa Monica is to be considered a model for affordable housing in L.A., then we’re in big trouble. If preserving existing housing is to be considered equally important as building new housing in a growing city, then this is the sort of “affordability” that can only protect incumbents and will result in increasing unaffordability for everyone else.

  • Alex Brideau III

    It would be interesting to hear LA THRIVES’ take on workforce housing. LA housing is so overpriced that a very large portion of the population, while not within the income range to qualify for “affordable housing”, nevertheless cannot afford market-rate housing. These priced-out folks then look to the suburbs and transit-unfriendly areas for decent rents, thus reinforcing unhealthy suburban sprawl.

  • Asher Of LA

    “Why is affordable housing near transit important? Why not just build lots of housing and let the market decide?

    It’s important to have affordable rents near stations because most transit riders are low income – three quarters with incomes below $25K. If we ignore this reality we risk two things: huge social disruption in “hot markets” as people lose their homes and, pushing our riders away from the very transit they are using.”

    The real poverty here is the poverty of will, ambition and creativity on the part of public transit officials and their backers to try and sell transit to the middle class. Their attitude continues to be “only broke people will ever use our service, and they can’t afford anything else; middle class people will never give up their cars for us.” They have conceded the race before it’s even begun. The original rail TODs were built off the middle classes, because building rail wouldn’t pencil out if all you did was build rail stations – the train companies developed the land around it, without which profits would have been small to nil.

    This is a big reason why private alternatives are looking to crack this market – the conventional transit players have completely abandoned it. Middle class people want the same thing as poor people do, they just have more money to afford better. If public transit can be made good enough to appeal to the middle class, (and conversely, alternative options like driving can be made pricier) then the poor people already taking transit will benefit.

    Further, I imagine plenty of middle income people would jump at the chance to live in TOD-housing in a great urban area like K-Town or downtown without a car, if it means rent that’s $200 a month cheaper (+ several hundred per month for the car itself) – but the city has to allow parking-free housing first.

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