If you’re a transit operator with a new system, ridership numbers — which are hardly an exact science and can make or break your budget — are probably going to be among your biggest concerns. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a solution to this anxiety-producing dilemma: helping to build housing along its bus and transit lines.
The transit agency is earmarking $9 million for a loan program to encourage affordable housing near its stations, KPCC reports. Doing so could help with ridership (put simply, if there are more people densely clustered along the line, more people are likely to ride the line) but the project is also meant to help counter gentrification and displacement. The loans will go toward the preservation of existing affordable housing and help to build around 1,800 new units.
The agency already requires developers building on Metro property to put aside 35 percent of new units for low-income households, but it doesn’t own much land, according to KPCC. The new public-private partnership, called the Metro Affordable Transit Connected Housing Program (MATCH), will loan money to developers at a relatively low interest to build lower-cost housing within a half mile of transit lines. The California Community Foundation, the California Endowment and the Weingart Foundation have collectively matched Metro’s $9 million with another $9 million.
Ethan Elkind, director of the climate change and business program at UCLA, told the station that he believed Metro’s investment was innovative, though he also believed it could be weighted down by state and city laws.
“It’s a loan not a subsidy, so it’s leveraging existing dollars, and affordable housing near transit is one of the best ways to ensure that nearby development actually generates ridership,” he said, adding that parking requirements and zoning restrictions still increase housing costs and create barriers to building affordable units on a wider scale.
Los Angeles isn’t the first city to fund affordable housing near transit — last year, Seattle joined a number of public and private partners to launch a $21 million revolving loan fund also aimed at also aimed at building housing for low-income families near transit. But while transit-oriented development remains the motivation for many new lines, and a coveted and hoped-for by-product of breaking ground (even if it doesn’t always inflate property values), it is still unique to see a transit agency taking the reins of that development.
But creativity is a must in a city of such mind-boggling sprawl, and the L.A. agency has recently moved away from being a mere operator of trains and buses to thinking on a systems-wide level about first/last mile issues and how to leverage both private and public in pursuit of transit.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.