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Can High-Density Housing Solve Our Regional Housing Crisis? The Answer: It’s Complicated

Southern California Public Radio affiliate KPCC, in partnership with the Milken Institute, assembled a panel of experts Wednesday night to answer the question: can high-density housing solve the housing crisis currently facing L.A. County and California?

Back in 2008, Streetsblog looked at the Solair Development along the Red Line in Koreatown.  ## Solair Transit Oriented?##  Our review was mixed.

Solair at Wilshire/Western in 2007. Photo: Damien Newton

For those who have been following news about the crippling housing supply crisis in our region, it may not come as a surprise that there were no straight-forward answers to this question offered up over the course of the 90-minute discussion (available to watch here in its entirety), moderated by KPCC senior reporter covering housing, Josie Huang.

The five-person panel did, however, generate some interesting possibilities for the future of our region and how to address the skyrocketing rents and home prices that are driving middle- and low-income people out of Southern California and even the state.

Or, in the words of panelist, Larry Gross, the executive director Coalition for Economic Survival, how do we prevent “the people who run Los Angeles [from] being run out of Los Angeles”?

“I don’t think density in itself is neither the solution for affordable housing, nor is it the great evil that will destroy neighborhoods forever. It has to be done well, it has to be located right, designed right, planned out right,” said William Huang, director of housing for the city of Pasadena.

Southern California’s historic aversion to density is clearly part of the problem, according to Professor of Architecture/Urban Design and Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Dana Cuff, who was also on the panel.

“One of the reasons housing prices have gone up so much recently has to do with the fact that we can’t sprawl out any further,” said Cuff.

“It used to be that people went out of the city to look for cheaper and cheaper housing,” Cuff said, which has resulted in Southern California having the nation’s highest rates of “extreme commutes,” which means a commute of at least 90 minutes each way.

But as the region densifies, especially along our growing transit system, how can communities make sure that homes are homes built not just for the wealthy, but also for middle- and low-income households, who are more likely to ride transit on a day-to-day basis?

If we develop our transit system in the wrong way, we’ll have higher-income people moving along those transit corridors, who may use transit to commute to work, but not for their regular trips, and you [will] actually see a decline in ridership on the transit system,” said panelist Jeff Schaffer, vice president of Enterprise Community Partners.

“Phil Washington, the new head of Metro, has said if low income people are forced to move further away from transit, then he’s going to be obligated to build transit to get out to them,” he said. A step in the right direction, however, is Metro’s plan to assure that at least 35 percent of all new housing developed on Metro property be affordable.

“We have a lot of ideas in terms of solutions [to the housing affordability problem],” said Schaffer, “whether it’s through design innovation, planning and zoning changes…, a mix of subsidies, incentives, requirements.”

“What we really need is some kind of comprehensive plan that ties all these together and fundamentally, we need a societal commitment that every person in our community deserves a decent, safe, and sanitary place to live,” he said.

If we just leave it to market forces, we’ll see a “dismal performance” in terms of housing production for low-income people, he said. Read more…

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Taxes Too High? Try Building Walkable, Mixed-Use Development

Walkable, mixed-use development provides far more return for Raleigh than Walmart, on a per acre basis. Image: Smart Growth America

Smart growth could increase Fresno’s tax revenue by 45 percent per acre. In Champaign, Illinois, it could save 23 percent per year on city services. Study after study has demonstrated: Walkable, mixed-use development is a much better deal for municipalities than car-oriented suburban development.

Smart Growth America recently conducted an analysis of research examining the impact of efficient development patterns on municipal bottom lines. The authors looked at 17 case studies, from California to Maryland, and, taken together, they say the findings clearly illustrate how walkable development leads to healthier city budgets than drivable sprawl.

For starters, smart growth is cheaper to build. On average, municipalities save about 38 percent on infrastructure costs like roads and sewers when serving compact development instead of large-lot subdivisions. Furthermore, SGA researchers say, “this figure is conservative, and many communities could save even more.” In the case studies, these upfront cost savings ranged from 20 percent to 50 percent.

The public savings don’t stop once projects get built. Mixed-use projects also reduce ongoing costs to municipalities for services like police, fire and trash. Smart Growth America estimates the average savings at almost 10 percent.

“Many services — fire, police, school buses, snow plowing — all require vehicles,” said William Fulton, vice president of policy development and implementation at Smart Growth America. “The fewer miles those vehicles have to travel, the lower the costs will be. If you apply smart growth across the board, you can also reduce the amount of cars and trucks that you need.”

Read more…

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Suburbanization of Poverty Isolates a Growing Number of Americans

Poverty is no longer a predominantly urban problem — and the suburbs are no longer the refuge of the upper classes. There are now almost 3 million more poor people living in suburbs than in cities, according to a new book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution. While cities still have a much higher poverty rate, poverty in the suburbs is growing twice as fast: Between 2000 and 2011, the suburban poor population grew by 64 percent, compared to 29 percent in cities.

That means more people living without cars in places designed exclusively for cars. In the suburbs, destinations are farther apart and getting to many places involves traveling on wide, high-speed roads where walking or biking is especially dangerous. Transit access is spotty and infrequent, where it exists at all. And providing transportation services to the poor in spread-out areas is less efficient and more expensive than in compact cities.

“Overall, in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, 700,000 households do not have a vehicle and are not served by public transit of any kind, and 95 percent of those households are suburban,” the authors write.

Kneebone and Berube tell the story of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, which used to be a middle-class bedroom community for workers at the Westinghouse Electric Company and other thriving businesses in the Pittsburgh area. Diminished employment opportunities have reduced the population by more than a quarter and increased the poverty rate from 8 to 11 percent:

Low-income residents of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, often can't afford to buy or maintain cars -- and the community lacks effective transit service. Photo: City-data

Among the more pressing problems facing the growing low-income population in Penn Hills is access to transportation. The suburb covers nineteen square miles, has more than twenty distinct neighborhoods, and is traversed by an interstate highway, a few major state roads, and a series of local roads with only a few sidewalks that wind their way up and down the hilly terrain. Infrastructure in some parts of the township resembles that of a rural community more than a major metropolitan suburb. More often now, residents must navigate these byways without a car. By 2008–10, almost one in ten (about 1,700) Penn Hills households lacked access to a vehicle, notably more than three decades earlier, when the local population was much larger.

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SANDAG’s 2050 Transportation Plan Drawing More and More Heat

More please? A shot of one of San Diego's freeways. Image: San Diego Personal Injury Lawyers

When the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) passed its 2050 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy, it declared a major victory over Greenhouse Gas emissions.  The plan was the first plan written to adhere to a 2008 law mandating that long-term transportation plans show a commitment to reducing air pollutants linked to global warming and a slew of public health problems.

However, it didn’t take long for the plan to be challenged in court be environmental groups for not going far enough, a legal battle that could have implications throughout the state.  A local environmental group known as the Cleveland National Forest Foundation launched a lawsuit against the plan that most observers dismissed as having little chance of winning.  Then, the CNFF was joined by other environmental groups, even the California Sierra Club.  Then, the Attorney General, Kamala Harris, weighed in.  Now, the SANDAG plan, once considered an important test of environmental planning, is also opposed by the Environmental Caucus of the California Democratic Party.  The Caucus passed a resolution condemning the SANDAG plan at their February meeting.

“As the first regional government in California to develop a land use plan under the State’s strict new climate change laws, SANDAG has a responsibility to set a path toward a sustainable future,” said Tony L. Hale, Chair of the Environmental Caucus of the California Democratic Party. “Instead, SANDAG’s plan calls for more of the same: sprawl, air pollution, and an increase in dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.”

A full copy of the Caucus’ resolution can be found at the end of this article. Read more…

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UCLA’s Richard Jackson Hosts PBS Series on Urban Design and Public Health

“A leading voice for better urban design for the sake of good health.” “A public health/social justice hero.” Dr. Richard Jackson, chair of environmental health at UCLA, is a leading voice for transportation reform whose work has linked America’s sprawl to the nation’s high rates of obesity.

The former director of the Center for Disease Control’s Environment Health Department will take to the airwaves Tuesday in an interview with PBS’s Tavis Smiley. The interview will run in coordination with Dr. Jackson’s four-hour documentary series, Designing Healthy Communities (check local listings).

Dr. Jackson spent years researching public health epidemics and zeroed in on car dependence and sprawl as leading factors in America’s diabetes and obesity epidemics.

“We have built America in a way that is, I believe, is fundamentally unhealthy,” Dr. Jackson says. “It prevents us from walking. It inhibits us from socializing. It removes trees and the things that make our air quality better. We could not have designed an environment that is more difficult for people’s well being at this point.”

He adds: “Two percent of the United States’ gross domestic product goes to the treatment of diabetes. This is a crushing economic impact.”

Read more…

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Our Stagnant Gas Tax Rate Is Making the Deficit Worse

Despite the anti-tax rhetoric of this round of elections, there’s been a little flurry of support for raising the gas tax lately. Two senators just proposed bumping it by 25 cents to replenish the highway trust fund. And the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform included a gas tax hike in its proposal for reducing the deficit by $3.8 trillion. Their proposal [PDF] is simple.

Gradually increase gas tax to fund transportation spending

  • Raise gas tax gradually by 15 cents beginning in 2013
  • Dedicate funds toward fully funding the transportation trust funds and therefore eliminating the need for further general fund bailouts

Raise the gas tax, cut the deficit. Image from Utanito via ##

Raise the gas tax, cut the deficit. Image from Utanito via Treehugger

Well, that’s clear enough. Highways cost money. You gotta pay to pave, and Americans aren’t paying.

Bloomberg quotes leaders on both sides of the aisle who lambasted the report. “Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the targeting of Social Security and Medicare ‘simply unacceptable,’ and Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas expressed opposition to proposals to raise taxes.” Everyone from AARP to the AFL-CIO lined up to slam the plan.

The co-chairs of the Commission even joke about the unpopularity of their proposals. “We have harpooned every whale in the ocean and some of the minnows,” said Republican former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson. Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, joked that they’d have to enter a “witness protection program.”

They also proposed eliminating the tax deduction for mortgage interest payments – or at least restricting the tax breaks so that second homes, expensive homes, and home equity loans weren’t eligible.

The mortgage tax break is a sprawl-inducer, encouraging people to buy “more house” for their money. Besides, home ownership rates are higher in the suburbs, since urbanites are more likely to rent. By removing the tax break, as the deficit commission recommends, they would require people to pay the full cost of the house they buy – and stop subsidizing the choice to live in the suburbs instead of cities.

Which brings us back to the gas tax. Politicians cower when drivers complain about paying more at the pump, so instead they just let the highway trust fund run dry and then raid the general fund to replenish it – meaning we’re all paying for their refusal to cover the cost of highways.

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Report: Want to Ease Commuter Pain? Highways and Sprawl Won’t Help

An analysis by CEOs For Cities shows that contrary to previous reports, the longest commutes are in sprawling Southeastern cities. View a larger version of this infographic. Image: CEOs for Cities

An analysis by CEOs For Cities shows that contrary to previous reports, the longest commutes are in sprawling Southeastern cities. View a larger version of this infographic. Image: CEOs for Cities

Imagine two drivers leaving downtown to head home. Each of them sits in traffic for the first ten miles of the commute but at that point, their paths diverge. The first one has reached home. The second has another twenty miles to drive, though luckily for her, the roads are clear and congestion doesn’t slow her down. Who’s got a better commute?

Shockingly, the standard method for measuring traffic congestion implies that the second driver has it better. The Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report (UMR) only studies how congestion slows down drivers from hypothetical maximum speeds, completely ignoring how long it takes to actually get where you’re going. The result is an incessant call for more highway lanes from newspapers across the country.

An important new report from CEOs for Cities, though, has laid out major problems with the UMR. It shows how commuters in compact regions, whose daily trips look hellish based on the UMR, actually spend far less time in the car than residents of sprawling metro areas.

The misleading metrics in the UMR are a convenient bludgeon for the highway lobby. According to report author Joe Cortright, the UMR serves as “a drumbeat saying we need to spend a lot more on expanding capacity. It gets used in political speeches, it’s used in lobbying.” Read more…


Metro Pokes SCAG. Endorses Higher Standards for SB375 Clean Air Emissions.

Downtown L.A. as seen from Westlake.  Photo ##

Downtown L.A. as seen from Westlake. Photo: King of the Hill/Flickr

Earlier this month, the Board of the Southern California Association of Governments (S.C.A.G.) rejected the long-term clean air targets for Southern California requested by the Air Resources Board and recommended by their own staff.  While today’s Metro Board Meeting featured good news for cyclists and bad news for bus riders, there was another hot debate over what goals for reducing Greenhouse Gas should be set for Southern California.  You can read the motion here.

A quick bit of history.  After the passage of S.B. 375 in 2008, the landmark legislation that tied greenhouse gas emissions to land use and planning, the state’s Air Resource Board was charged with coming up with a plan to reduce emissions statewide through better planning and reducing vehicle miles traveled.  After a lengthy outreach and research plan, the ARB recommended that the SCAG region, which includes L.A. County, the Inland Empire, Orange County, Riverside County, and San Bernadino County, set goals of an 8% reduction in Greenhouse Gases by 2020 and 13% reduction by 2035 (i.e. the 8/13 standard.)  However, the SCAG Board chose much lower standards, 8% reduction by 2035 and a 6% reduction by 2020 (i.e. the 6/8 standard.)

But those standards weren’t good enough for a Metro Board that is quite a bit more progressive than their colleagues at SCAG.  Metro’s Ad-Hoc sustainability committee recommended that the Metro Board endorse the 8/13 reduction standards and after a brief debate earlier today, the Metro Board passed that recommendation. Read more…

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Without a Plan, Sprawl Will Continue to Hollow Out Cleveland Region

Photo: Angie SchmittPlaces like Woodlawn Avenue in East Cleveland are languishing while investment in the region flows to car-based exurbs. Photo: Angie Schmitt

If you want to get a sense of how devastating sprawl has been to the urban areas of northeast Ohio, head over to Woodlawn Avenue in East Cleveland. Between the rows of boarded up buildings, a house collapses onto itself. Graffiti pays homage to dead loved ones — “R.I.P. Fife.” Nearby, stuffed animals have been stapled to a telephone pole in a memorial, presumably, to a dead child.

Travel thirty miles west to Lorain County, and they’re laying sewer pipe for a new housing development. The housing market is strong in exurban Avon, where a new highway interchange has spurred a rush in commercial real estate development on what was once forests. Here residents can commute an easy 35 minutes by highway to downtown Cleveland, while avoiding the higher taxes that come with closer-set communities, burdened by old infrastructure and the cost of providing social services to less affluent residents.

It’s a pattern that can’t be reversed without the type of comprehensive planning that the Obama administration has encouraged through its Sustainable Communities Initiative, which would receive a substantial boost with the passage of the Livable Communities Act.

For decades, residents of greater Cleveland have been moving up and moving out. In fact, long ago, East Cleveland itself was founded by industrialists, including John Rockefeller, who were seeking shelter from what they thought were exorbitant city tax rates.

But that’s not what makes this region a special example of the destructive impacts of laissez-faire development. Housing works this way in many, if not most, mid-sized American cities, with less disastrous results. The difference in metro Cleveland is that, roughly since the 1970s, the regional population has been stagnant. That means, in essence, for every house built in Avon, a house in East Cleveland — or the city of Cleveland, or, increasingly, one of the inner-ring suburbs — is abandoned.

The result has been devastating for the central city and the smaller residential communities that encircle it. Read more…


SCAG Takes a Pass on History, Moves Forward with Lower GHG Reductions

5_28_09_sprawl.jpgPhoto of Riverside via Miizzard/Flickr.

Last May, I had the chance to sit down with Michael Woo, the former Los Angeles City Councilman and Mayoral Candidate, urban planner, USC Professor and Climate Change activist.  Woo expressed hope that the Southern California Association of Governments would set the bar for other regions when deciding how to follow new state laws by setting high targets for emissions reductions.  The reductions are a state requirement after the passage of California’s internationally lauded Smart Growth Law in 2008, SB 375.

Yesterday, SCAG took a pass on history and sided with the sprawl lobby in endorsing reduced targets for the region which includes Los Angeles County as well as the Inland Empire, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernadino Counties.  Instead of setting the goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 8% in 2020 and 13% in 2035 as recommended by the state’s Air Resource Board after a lengthy public process, SCAG chose to set goals of 6% reduction in 2020 and 8% in 2035.  The 8/13 targets were rejected by a 21 to 29 vote.

Unfortunately, this means that design standards and community plans throughout the region will have less density, encourage fewer transportation options, and create less vibrant communities with less open space over the next twenty five years than they would have if SCAG would have followed the state board’s recommendations.

This rejection marks a victory for the Building Industry Association which lobbied for a 5% reduction target and distributed misinformation far and wide to preserve Southern Californians right to sprawl.  The BIA claimed the rejected benchmarks would push gas prices to $9, would cripple the economy, and were completely unrealistic anyway.  That independent reviews showed that a plan to meet the 8/13 benchmarks would increase gas costs by two cents a gallon over twenty five years, would save the average working family save $3,600 annually on transportation costs, would create design standards that would encourage growth and calls for lower reductions than the ones passed in the Sacramento and Bay regions somehow didn’t make the B.I.A.’s “hysteria sheet.”

And that the SCAG Board chose to believe these phony statistics, without a methodology showing how they came to be, over the hard work of their own staff tells us a lot about the SCAG Board.

After the vote, the BIA was crowing.  Richard Lambros, the executive director of the association told the Associated Press:

They made a decision that is both aggressive and achievable and will make a significant reduction in emissions while still protecting California’s economy.

Read more…