Organizing to put affordable housing on the ballot in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: United to House LA
This post was written by guest contributor James Brasuell.
A lack of affordable housing has reached crisis proportions in cities and regions all over the United States. As low-income transit riders move outside of the urban core to find affordable housing options, they also move away from high-quality transit options, robbing transit systems of riders. The economic pressures of the pandemic–skyrocketing housing prices and a sudden wave of out-migration from superstar to smaller cities–have added additional urgency to the discussion.
As a result, advocacy organizations traditionally focused on transportation are delving into housing and land use policy. In San Diego, Circulate San Diego is exporting a successful affordable housing density bonus program to the rest of the state. In Los Angeles, local advocates ACT-LA have qualified a real estate transfer tax for the November ballot that will raise an estimated $8 billion over ten years for tenant support and homlessness prevention programs. And in Pittsburgh, Pittsburghers for Public Transit is pushing for citywide land use reforms that make it easier and cheaper to build housing near transit. Despite the numerous challenges, these advocates are achieving significant success by creatively marrying the causes of housing and transit.
Responding to the Crisis
In San Diego, the rising cost of housing is sending newcomers and long-time residents into the region’s sprawling suburbs to seek affordable housing, in a pattern familiar in every fast-growing corner of the United States that reinforces automobile-dependency and makes high-quality public transit an insurmountable challenge.
“It’s much easier to create a transit solution for someone living in a trolley car suburb and commuting into downtown than it is to help someone taking a bus or a trolley from 30 miles east of where they want to work,” says Colin Parent, executive director of Circulate San Diego. Parent and Circulate San Diego has been advocating for better transit along with programs that create opportunities for affordable housing construction. The group played a major role in the passage of AB 2345, a state law approved in 2020 that expands an affordable housing bonus program first tested in the city of San Diego to the rest of California. Circulate San Diego also produces a steady stream of reports making the case for land use and transportation planning reforms, such as the “Home Run for Homes” report published in April 2022, which tracked the outcomes of San Diego’s density bonus program. In 2018, Circulate successfully advocated for the local transit agency, MTS, to turn agency-owned parking lots into homes.
The same patterns are at work in Los Angeles, San Diego’s large neighbor to the north, where the nation’s largest population of people experiencing homelessness has continued to grow through the pandemic–pressuring local politicians and advocates to seek creative solutions. In response, the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles (ACT-LA) is organizing support for a ballot initiative known as United to House LA. According to ACT-LA Executive Director Laura Raymond, United to House LA would multiply the benefit of the massive capital investment plan underway at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro)–$160 billion for transit projects around the region–by enacting a real estate transfer tax on properties over $5 million, generating an estimated $875 million a year for affordable housing acquisition and homelessness prevention.
“There is a danger that Metro invests $160 billion just on rail–not spending it on operations or not spending it on the bus–and the housing crisis continues to displace transit riders and transit ridership continues to drop,” says Raymond.
With money for programs like a right to counsel program, tenant outreach and education programs, and income support for seniors and people with disabilities on the brink of homelessness, United to House LA would supplement other initiatives supported by ACT-LA in recent years, such as the transit oriented communities incentive program implemented by Measure JJJ in the city of Los Angeles. United to House LA would also benefit the county of Los Angeles’s brand new land banking program, approved in June.
“I really see [the land bank] as a huge opportunity for Metro to do deeply affordable housing near some of these stations,” says Raymond. “You can pair it in the city of L.A. with United to House LA, which will have funding for that housing to be built.”
In Pittsburgh, which has lost half of its peak population and large institutional investors are cornering what remains of the market, the housing picture looks markedly different. Pittsburgh’s Black community is disproportionately at risk of displacement–the U.S. Census estimated that 10,700 Black residents left Allegheny County from 2010 to 2020 [paywall], a drop of more than 13%.
The city’s new mayor, Ed Gainey, campaigned on promises to implement inclusionary zoning in the city to help stem the loss of vulnerable households in the city, and is also a big supporter of transit. Local advocacy organization Pittsburghers for Public Transit is mobilizing to capitalize on the political momentum for ambitious housing policies by launching the Pittsburgh 100 Days Transit Platform. Pittsburghers for Public Transit developed the 100 Days platform in collaboration with allied organizations working on housing justice, disability justice, and neighborhood development to take a citywide approach to housing affordability that includes a recommendation for citywide inclusionary zoning, with requirements for deeply affordable units around frequent transit assets.
Pittsburghers for Public Transit points to the Giant Eagle Shakespeare Redevelopment as another advocacy success story. According to Executive Director Laura Chu Wiens, Pittsburghers for Public Transit organized with food and housing justice advocates to push the developers to cut its proposed structured parking lot in half–a natural fit given its location in a transit-rich corner of the city–and put the savings toward an increased share of affordable units. Pittsbughers for Public Transit hopes to replicate the effort at the Giant Eagle Shakespeare Redevelopment at scale throughout the city.
Building a Winning Coalition
To find success, Chu Wiens, Parent, and Raymond all emphasize the value of building a large coalition at the outset of any effort to combine transit and housing advocacy.
Raymond, for example, traces the successes thus far of ACT-LA to building a strong coalition at inception. “We’re 42 organizations that work together…so we’re just able to think big.” Thinking big inspires people–members of the organization and coalition and the public and politicians, adds Raymond.
Luckily, the intersectional nature of the discussion lends itself to coalition building and ambitious thinking. “[Transit riders’] represent 5% of the population, and probably less in a lot of areas,” says Parent. “So if we’re going to advocate for making transit work, we have to figure out how transit would benefit not just the riders, but also the climate, businesses, and broader economic development.”
Circulate San Diego has also made a citywide approach a key strategy for its advocacy – for systemic zoning reform rather than city council votes on every single project, as detailed in an article published by the Western Law Review journal in 2019. “Doing those things citywide, it’s easier to get broad support from housing activists and activists and business activists, or business orientations,” says Parent. “It’s still a hard vote, sometimes, but at least it’s one hard vote that can impact a whole bunch of products in the future, as opposed to having to have a hard vote every time you want to do anything.”
These organizations have all discovered that transit advocacy can, at times, be too focused on the politics and minutiae of transit to address the fundamental inequities of 21st century living. “In addressing the transit agency, the [only] things that we can really talk about with them, generally, are service, fares, and funding,” says Chu Wiens.
But there is a mutually beneficial relationship between housing and transit in practical terms, because transit needs housing and density nearby to succeed. Ridership is highest in dense, walkable neighborhoods–the challenge is to keep them not just dense and walkable but also affordable. “We need to allow more people to live where it makes sense for them to live, where they want to live, and to create attractive transportation and transit solutions for them,” says Parent.
Pittsburghers for Public Transit has embraced an intersectional approach to its advocacy efforts. “If we are truly disability justice advocates; if we are truly, anti-poverty activists, then we have to talk about land use and infrastructure too,” says Chu Wiens.
Many thanks to Grace Perdomo of Transit Alliance Miami for providing background information for this post.