A Discussion: What's Right and Not-Yet-Right About The New Affordable Housing & Sustainable Communities Program



The Strategic Growth Council green-lighted 54 projects to prepare full proposals for the new Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program in March -- a big new pot of Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund money (from the Cap & Trade program) for all kinds of good projects, including infill and compact housing, transit, active transportation, complete streets, and other GHG and air pollution reduction projects and programs. Since then a lot of people have been trying to figure out why the Bay Area was given the go-ahead to apply for 40% of the AHSC pie, when Southern California was invited to apply for only 20%, even though SoCal has twice the population and significantly greater need: 50% of AHSC funding is to go to "disadvantaged communities" -- defined as "areas disproportionately burdened by and vulnerable to multiple sources of pollution" -- 67% of which are located in SoCal.

One conclusion that can be drawn is that the AHSC program is all about integrating transit, housing and first-last-mile connections, and that the Bay Area, because it has a mature transit system, has been doing this for decades, and has the technical expertise and partnerships in place. Southern California, in contrast, has always had a robust bus system but is only now building out a rail system -- which has far more influence on land use -- and mostly in LA County, with the result that integrating transit and housing is a relatively newer phenomenon here in SoCal.

The kicker, of course, is that Southern California, home to half the population of the state, has to catch up and succeed -- either following Bay Area best practices or developing a SoCal model instead -- if we are to achieve the ambitious GHG reduction goals that we have championed in the state!

The California Community Foundation co-hosted a discussion about lessons learned regarding the AHSC program this week -- with LA Metro, the LA Regional Collaborative, Enterprise Community Partners, and LA THRIVES – and featuring a panel with Jacob Lieb (LA Metro), Ryan Wiggins (TransForm), Eric Bruins (LA County Bicycle Coalition), Kristen Pawling (SCAG) and Steve Lefever (City of South Gate). These are some of the things that the panel and audience had to say about the AHSC program:

  • Projects statewide were able to leverage significantly more money than projects in SoCal: the average in SoCal was 299% while statewide projects leveraged 648% or significantly more. This may have become a de facto screening criteria, regardless of a projects other merits.
  • Metro had thought the AHSC program could be the principle vehicle for investing in first-last-mile connections -- Metro’s first-last-mile strategic plan won the American Planning Association’s national best practices award. But it became clear after reading and re-reading the definition of fundable transportation projects in the guidelines that these projects probably should have been eligible but probably were not.
  • It seems that the AHSC program prioritizes funding affordable housing (the program is administered by the Strategic Growth Council working with the California Department of Housing and Community Development) more than transportation. And if it is a housing-driven program, is it possible to get meaningful funding for good transportation projects out of it? Perhaps there should be a broader discussion about program goals because there seems to be a misalignment.
  • Part of the solution to the problem described above is to de-couple the planning for these housing and transportation projects from their funding and implementation – because planning housing and transportation projects together is easier than implementing them together – since they tend to involve different sectors (private vs public), different kinds of funding, different timelines, different approval and permitting processes, different goals, etc. This makes it extremely difficult to have both kinds of projects in the same state of readiness, which was required in part because the AHSC program needs to show real GHG emission reductions as soon as possible.
  • The degree of project readiness required made it difficult to find projects that were not only eligible but also a high priority for applicants (who may have had to choose the projects that were ready to go over better projects or projects more likely to win funding).
  • The fact that there was a $15 million cap on funding per jurisdiction meant that the City of LA would be eligible for the same amount of funding as a much smaller city.
  • While SGC works closely with the California Department of Housing and Community Development, it does not have a similar working relationship with Caltrans – but more transportation expertise is required to ensure the right transportation projects get funded.
  • Smaller cities, especially those that are disadvantaged, have a harder time competing because they are financially constrained and typically have smaller staffs that are already working at capacity, making it difficult to write proposals, especially for more complicated, integrated, “shovel-ready” projects like this program was intended to implement.
  • Projects in high-quality transit areas (“HQTAs” are defined to have 15-minute transit headways or better) achieve good GHG reductions and are therefore more eligible for AHSC funding. Urban areas in LA County have many HQTAs, but other parts of the SoCal region do not.
  • In order for bike-ped projects to be eligible in HQTAs they had to be coupled with a housing project -- excellent in theory but difficult to realize. Bike/ped projects outside HQTAs were also eligible but would probably be less effective and therefore less likely to score well.
  • LA Metro is getting into the business of affordable housing by establishing a revolving loan fund that could aggregate funding from partners, which would make LA Metro the second largest transit agency – the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area is #1 – to do so. This will better allow for joint planning and implementation of transportation and housing projects that would be more eligible for AHSC funding.
  • Metro also has a joint work program with SCAG that includes planning processes that will help bring projects forward that will be more eligible for funding sources like AHSC.
  • The 2016 RTP/SCS (Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy) planning process at SCAG should also help move forward projects that will be more eligible for funding from AHSC.
  • Since it’s unlikely that the SGC will make wholesale changes in the grant guidelines it’s important for us to focus on the changes that would make the biggest difference.
  • If AHSC is going to fund meaningful transportation projects something is going to have to change.
  • The Gateway Cities believe that the funding should be made available to the subregions and the subregions should be able to decide how to allocate it.
  • The California Emissions Estimator Model (CalEEMod) is used to quantify potential GHG and air pollution reductions achieved by AHSC projects. But the model is maximized toward simple project only fixes rather than broader integrated strategies.
  • It’s important that the AHSC funding can be used not only to address the needs of the new residents of new affordable housing projects but also the people who already live in the neighborhood. But that doesn’t seem to be possible with AHSC funding.
  • If the transit system is mature these projects are easier to plan and implement, which puts places that don’t have mature transit systems, including Southern California, at a disadvantage – this should be taken into consideration.
  • If the goal is to reduce GHG emissions by linking transportation and affordable housing then urban form is important. The goal of the AHSC program is not to spread money around like jelly – there should also be clumps like in jam – and we are well-poised in LA County.
  • We can make changes in the development process so that we can deliver the best housing projects and the most strategic transportation improvements but it’s not clear that will make them competitive for AHSC funding – that may be simply a matter of checking the box on the transportation side to deliver the low-hanging fruit.
  • It is difficult to jointly plan and implement projects that are at such different scales – housing is built on a site whereas transportation projects connect many destinations.  For example, developers may be asked to improve the sidewalk in front of their project but the sidewalk that begins where the improvements end may be a wreck. It’s difficult to move projects forward simultaneously using this program at these disparate scales.
  • We’ve got a really good story to tell in this region about how we have stepped up to make our transportation investment – and that should help us leverage other investments – but that story is getting told well enough.
  • There is relationship-building going on in Northern California all the time – cities are calling agencies and the state and asking for help. We need to make a more concerted effort to build those relationships so we can pick up the phone and ask someone at HCD to help us, for example, walk through a difficult application process.
  • Now 25% of all funding goes to projects that benefit disadvantaged communities with at least 10% going to projects located in disadvantaged communities. But there is interest in increasing the investment in disadvantaged communities to 35%.

The Strategic Growth Council meets in Sacramento on June 30, when the awards are likely to be announced, and will hold a workshop in both Northern and Southern California on July 20. Hopefully SoCal projects will do better in the final round. The goals: to reduce GHG emissions and VMT by increasing access to housing, employment centers and key destinations using low carbon transportation options. The scoring: GHG reductions 55%, policy objectives 30%, and project readiness 15%.


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