By building housing, jobs and services near high-quality transit, the Bay Area can accommodate new residents across the income spectrum, improve conditions for its most vulnerable communities, support access to opportunity and give people the freedom to get around without relying on a private car. In January, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) presented a promising proposal for a new regional transit-oriented communities policy (see item attached to this agenda). If approved, this proposal will support new housing at all income levels, new jobs, sustainable access to transit, and protection from displacement in “transit-rich areas” — places designated by MTC that are served by rail, ferry or frequent bus. In crafting a final policy for approval, MTC’s commissioners must not only maintain the ambition of the current draft proposal, but leverage the full range of the agency’s funding authority to ensure that the policy is implemented. If commissioners can do this, the updated TOC policy will expand access to affordable and sustainable communities for tens of thousands of Bay Area residents. If they instead pass a policy that ignores the equity, sustainability and mobility targets laid out in Plan Bay Area 2050, the region’s unanimously approved Sustainable Communities Strategy, the region will not be able to meet the plans’ housing, equity and mobility promises.
A recent SPUR article described why a strong new transit-oriented communities (TOC) policy is essential for meeting regional housing, sustainability, equity and quality-of-life goals. Thankfully, MTC’s draft TOC policy goes far beyond the current policy in ways that SPUR, Enterprise, TransForm and NPH strongly support. This draft policy is a good start toward addressing a set of regional TOC principles developed by a broad regional coalition of housing, equity, environmental and open space organizations.
For example, the proposal:
- Aligns residential and commercial zoning targets with the scale of housing and job growth the region must deliver in transit-rich areas (as defined in Plan Bay Area 2050)
- Applies not just to new transit corridors but also to existing transit stations and corridors where growth and change is needed so that more people can access those transit services
- Proposes local policy requirements focused on affordable housing production and preservation, as well as tenant protections in transit-rich areas
- Commits to improving affordable and sustainable access to transit from surrounding areas, particularly for Equity Priority Communities, defined by MTC as “census tracts that have a significant concentration of underserved populations”
This article briefly describes and makes recommendations on two critical aspects of the draft TOC policy: How can MTC ensure the TOC policy is effectively implemented? And how can MTC prioritize addressing the affordable housing and displacement crises facing low-income residents and communities of color?
Providing Incentives to Comply With the Policy
MTC does not have the authority to require cities and counties to put more housing, jobs or anti-displacement policies near transit, nor can the agency prevent jurisdictions from taking harmful steps such as permitting car-oriented land uses and large amounts of parking. Therefore, in order for the regional TOC policy to be effective, jurisdictions need incentives to comply with it. MTC’s primary tool is funding: The agency controls or influences most of the region’s transportation funding, so it can require that cities and counties follow the TOC policy in order to be eligible for funds. This is known as “conditioning” funding.
MTC’s draft TOC policy proposal is strategic in its approach to making TOC policy compliance a condition of transportation funding. There are two aspects of the proposal:
- Constructing new transit corridors or stations. For new transit services, the area surrounding proposed stations and stops must comply with the policy in order for the transit construction project to receive funding. For example, for a BART extension, all new station areas would need to meet the average zoning densities for areas surrounding the station before the project receives funding that MTC controls.
- Enhancing existing transit service. This type of transit investment would trigger a requirement that existing transit stations must come into compliance with the TOC policy. In this case, the funding for the transit enhancements themselves is not conditioned, so transit agencies can proceed with improvements regardless of whether individual jurisdictions choose to comply with the TOC policy. However, the individual jurisdictions must come into compliance within a specified time period (not yet determined) in order for that jurisdiction to be eligible for certain regional transportation funds.
Although conditioning funds is not always popular with local jurisdictions, it is precisely what MTC is supposed to be doing. For nearly 15 years, MTC encouraged stronger housing production and commercial development near transit by encouraging cities and counties to designate Priority Development Areas, and then providing funding for planning and infrastructure for these locations. But this approach has not delivered the scale or pace of housing and job growth that regional plans assumed — which has seriously threatened the Bay Area’s ability to meet it climate, equity, mobility and transit-access goals.
As the draft TOC policy is further revised over the coming months, we recommend two areas where funding conditioning can be improved:
- All jurisdictions with transit-rich areas should, over time, be required to comply with the policy in order to be eligible for other transportation funds under MTC’s discretion. This moves beyond the concept that compliance is tied to new public transit investment. The reality is that areas with great transit today should be expected to support jobs, housing at all income levels, services and appropriate anti-displacement policies. If they do not, it makes sense for MTC to prioritize the Bay Area’s limited transportation funds to areas that are doing more to support the transit-oriented communities the region needs.
- Ensure that the magnitude of conditioned funds is sufficient to motivate most jurisdictions to comply. The current plan is that eligibility for the One Bay Area Grant (OBAG) program will require compliance with the TOC policy. As an example of the scale of these funds, the current cycle, known as OBAG 3, represents about $340 million in funds that are distributed based on local applications. But there are other funds that would be appropriate to condition, as well, including new toll revenues from Regional Measure 3 (with well over $1 billion in funds that could be conditioned) and future federal and state transportation funding that will fall under MTC’s control. MTC’s endorsement of local applications for state and federal funds, such as TIRCP and Federal Transit Administration grants, should also be conditioned on compliance with the TOC policy. MTC often weighs in on which projects from the Bay Area are best suited to compete for these state and federal funds against projects from elsewhere in the state or country. The agency’s endorsement is an important part of these funding applications and should depend, in part, upon the jurisdiction’s TOC policy compliance.
Centering Equity and Affordability in Policy Design
From the beginning, conversations regarding the TOC policy update have asked: How can this policy ensure equitable outcomes? The region made bold commitments through Plan Bay Area 2050 to confront racial inequities in housing, transportation and land use planning. The TOC policy update presents an important opportunity to make these commitments a reality, drawing on best practices from across the country to intentionally design the policy with equity at its center.
Delivering on the “3 Ps”
The draft policy requires minimum housing densities for all income levels near high-quality transit, informed by Plan Bay Area 2050 and by the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) 2023-2031, which sets a target amount of housing for cities and counties to build each year. But if the goal is vibrant, inclusive transit-oriented communities with an abundance of housing accessible to people at all income levels, it’s critical to confront the problems playing out in communities today, alongside planning for future growth. Today, the Bay Area has an inadequate supply of housing, particularly affordable housing, residents being displaced far from their communities due to rising costs and housing insecurity, and land use and transportation patterns that fuel carbon emissions. That’s why it’s so important that the TOC policy go further by incorporating the 3 Ps — affordable housing production and preservation, as well as tenant protections — and recognize the disproportionate housing needs facing low-income residents. The draft TOC policy proposes that cities and counties would have a menu of policy options to choose from to promote each of these strategies (see Figure 1). This flexibility recognizes the diverse housing landscape across the region and allows cities to right-size their approach based on community needs.
Figure 1. Summary of MTC Draft Proposal for 3 Ps Policies
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Source: MTC Draft Transit-Oriented Communities Policy
These policies demonstrate MTC’s commitment to advancing equity through the policy, but we see clear opportunities to further improve the 3 Ps approach to advance equitable outcomes. MTC may consider, for example, adding a separate menu section for protections for small businesses and community nonprofit organizations. Importantly, the policy must set standards that define the essential components needed for each local policy in Figure 1 to be effective. For example, what minimum level of funding constitutes a meaningful foreclosure assistance program? What minimum level of affordable housing is sufficient for a meaningful inclusionary zoning policy?
The policy should also set specific affordable housing and overall housing production targets, consistent with RHNA and Plan Bay Area 2050, in addition to the recommended 3 Ps policies. While local jurisdictions will still have flexibility in how they achieve these targets, there must be clear affordable housing outcomes to measure progress and help identify funding needs.
In addition to the menu of supportive policies, there are also several foundational anti-displacement policies that should be a uniform requirement of the TOC policy in the event of demolition. These include 1-for-1 replacement for any demolition of housing that is deed-restricted, rent restricted or occupied by low-income renters. This 1-for-1 replacement should also include relocation assistance and a right of return for residents directly displaced by a demolition. The TOC policy should also require jurisdictions to adopt policies that prohibit any net reduction in the number affordable housing units in the case of demolition. (This prohibition is in state law but will sunset on January 1, 2025.) These policies should be a requirement for all jurisdictions under the TOC policy, and they should be enacted early on to proactively stem future displacement.
Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing
In response to the historical and contemporary patterns of racial exclusion and segregation in the Bay Area, it will be important for MTC to consider the current landscape of both segregation and inequitable access to opportunity as the agency defines density and affordable housing requirements. “Affirmatively furthering fair housing” requires taking actions that combat discrimination and overcome patterns of segregation. It means fostering inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protected characteristics, such as race or disability.
High-resource, transit-rich locations in the region often have extremely few housing options accessible to people with low or moderate incomes, people who rent and people with disabilities. Yet these areas have great access to education, jobs and services — exactly the types of places that should provide more opportunities for people to live. The policy should require greater density and higher affordable housing targets in transit-rich locations that also have an abundance of other resources and opportunities, including access to jobs, healthcare and healthy environments. Conversely, the policy should be intentional about ensuring sufficient phase-in time for Equity Priority Communities to allow these communities to update local plans and decide, with direction from residents, how and where they wish to accommodate the new growth.
Equitable Station Access Policies
A regional TOC policy must also advance equity by making it easier and more affordable for surrounding communities to access high-quality transit. People with low incomes use transit at higher rates than those with higher incomes. This trend has only grown since the pandemic, as low-income workers are far less likely to be able to work remotely. Safer and more affordable station access is essential for equity, transit recovery and ridership growth.
The draft policy requires jurisdictions to conduct an “access gap analysis” to assess specific barriers to safe and affordable station access for those within a 15-minute radius using affordable and low-emission travel modes, such as walking, biking, buses or shuttles. The draft policy takes an important additional step by requiring that the investment needs identified in these gap analyses be incorporated into local capital improvement plans. To truly drive implementation of these station access improvements, the policy should go a step further by prioritizing MTC discretionary funds to help jurisdictions close the identified station access gaps.
Finally, the draft policy promotes residential and commercial development that will create greater reliance on public transit. But the policy does not directly address how residents and workers will be able to afford transit. MTC’s recent commitment to pilot multiagency transit passes for affordable housing developments (see item 4a attached to this agenda) is an opportunity to ensure that low-income residents in transit-rich areas can afford to use the regional transit network. The TOC policy should prioritize eligibility for MTC’s transit pass program for affordable housing developments in transit-rich areas.
Ultimately, the TOC policy will help create thriving places with great jobs, community services and attractive public spaces. Such hubs will become vital amenities for surrounding communities. By explicitly prioritizing affordable and efficient access from surrounding Equity Priority Communities, the policy makes clear that TOCs will not only improve transit accessibility, they will make sure these amenities are accessible to all — prioritizing those who need them most.
There will be several opportunities to hear MTC present on this policy and offer your feedback. On Friday, May 13, MTC’s Planning Committee will discuss an updated draft policy, with a goal of finalizing a policy for consideration of the full commission in July. At any time, you can tell MTC Commissioners what you think are the most important elements of this policy.