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    Two things don’t come easy to San Diego: figuring out how to build low-income housing, and figuring out how to develop near transit stations.

    A new state program could address both issues, but local low-income housing advocates say the region isn’t as competitive as other major metro areas in the state because of its smaller public transit system.

    The San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, for its part has said the region got a healthy share of funding, but the regional planning agency is nonetheless asking the state to lower the program’s standards for how close projects must be to transit stations, so that more local projects can compete.

    The new funding source is called the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program, and it offered $130 million this year to low-income housing projects that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by being built near transit stations and in already-developed, dense urban areas.

    The program’s $130 million represented 20 percent of the state’s annual revenue from its cap-and-trade program, in which the state auctions permits to companies that allow them to pollute within a certain limit. The proceeds are then spent on projects that will reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

    Two San Diego projects pulled in money during the new program’s first funding cycle out of 14 local projects that applied. They brought in just over $16 million out of the $121 million the state gave away in all.

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    In contrast, 39 percent of the Bay Area’s applications won grants, pulling in over $47 million, and 23 percent of projects in the regional area that includes Los Angeles, Orange County and Riverside won over $27 million. Both the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco had a $15 million cap on the funds projects in their cities could receive.

    The two winning projects were a Bus Rapid Transit facility in Chula Vista and a 201-unit, low-income housing project in National City adjacent to the 24th Street trolley station.

    According to the Strategic Growth Council – the state entity that manages the grant – the problem in San Diego was that there weren’t enough projects that were “shovel ready,” or ready to begin construction.

    A SANDAG representative said the agency was happy with how much funding San Diego received. But low-income housing advocates say more projects would have been able to apply if the region had a more extensive public transportation network.

    The program requires all housing projects that apply to be in identified low-income areas within a half mile of a transit station. It’s increasingly the norm that competitive state funding sources prioritize transportation projects and transit-focused developments to help achieve the state’s ambitious state goal of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

    Other grant programs with similar initiatives are the Active Transportation Program, which focuses on bicycle and pedestrian projects, and the Low Carbon Transportation Program, intended to fund low- and zero-emissions transit.

    “We got $16 million and given the size of our region, it’s definitely proportional,” said Coleen Clementson, a planner at SANDAG. “We definitely feel we got our fair share of funding. I just think that it’s a concern throughout the state that there are limited funds and a high demand.”

    Clementson said 86 percent of low-income residences in the region are within a half-mile of transit.

    But just 46 percent of low-income residences are that close to transit that comes every 15 minutes during peak hours – an industry standard for high-quality transit, because it allows riders to show up at a station without checking a schedule.

    “A lot of the transit currently is in low-income areas, so we think we’re in a good position to continue receiving funding,” she said.

    Laura Nunn, policy director of the San Diego Housing Federation, wasn’t as optimistic about the outcome.

    “We had applications for this funding program, but they weren’t competitive,” Nunn said. “This program relies really heavily on the transit piece, and we’re not as competitive as Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

    Los Angeles, for example, Nunn said, recently implemented a policy requiring 35 percent of housing built on land near transit held by the city’s transit agency be dedicated for low-income housing. That creates more eligible land to be used for projects applying for the grant.

    Though SANDAG said it’s happy with the amount of money local projects secured, the agency is nonetheless lobbying the state to make projects that are farther away from transit stations to be eligible for the money.

    “Studies have shown that riders are willing, and likely, to travel up to one mile to reach transit stations,” SANDAG wrote in a July letter to the Strategic Growth Council.

    The state’s official “transit priority areas” and the city of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan both use the half-mile measure.

    The funding program drew a link between low-income housing and public transportation – a relationship that SANDAG, advocates and low-income housing developers agree needs to be forged in the county.

    “I think part of it relates to the fact that both the Bay Area and L.A. have a longer history developing (transit-oriented development) and affordable housing,” said Mario Turner, vice president of AMCAL, which applied for but didn’t get funding for Villa Encantada Apartments, a 67-unit complex in Encanto. “To that extent there is that history, experience and policies. That is going to benefit them.”

    AMCAL’s project was built on MTS land – a parking lot. Turner said it is the first partnership between a transit agency and a low-income housing development in the region.

    “If we see a lot more of that, a lot more opportunities for this funding will present themselves,” he said.

      This article relates to: Growth and Housing, Land Use, Must Reads, SANDAG

      Written by Maya Srikrishnan

      Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at

      Chris Brewster
      Chris Brewster subscribermember

      This is a system designed to incentivize density, to the benefit of citizens, traffic, pollution, general quality of life, etc. SANDAG knows there is nimbyism and other political resistance to density. The solution, they think, is to change the rules. But of course if you change the rules you gut the system and the entire concept, along with its related benefits. Leadership involves making tough decisions and advocating for those decisions, even when there is pushback, but SANDAG is a reflection of the political cowardice of its board, all of them local politicians who might hear from their constituents about the concept of increasing density. If San Diego prefers urban sprawl, suck it up and live with the consequences. Don't whine when you lack the guts to advocate for actions that would draw funds to encourage better urban planning.

      Marcus Bush
      Marcus Bush subscriber

      @Chris Brewster "Leadership involves making tough decisions..." Could not agree more. The extent to which our region's elected officials will cave to the whims of a vocal, selfish and entitled minority of people just amazes me. 

      Greg Martin
      Greg Martin subscriber

      @Marcus Bush @Chris Brewster An example of total political cowardice is from City Council member and SANDAG board member Todd Gloria on the upcoming "impoved" transit access to Lindbergh field.

      Come October, Green Line trolley passengers will be able to get off at the Middletown Station, walk 400 feet down West Palm Street and cross over Pacific Highway to a new airport shuttle stop.

      He provides this lame justification:  “People are already being fairly multimodal if they are trying to get there by public transit,” he said. To those wary of the walk down West Palm Street, “You walk much farther from TSA to your gate,” Gloria said.

      Except one isn't exposed to the elements inside a terminal, isn't carrying all of their luggage to the gate, and is never going to encounter drivers going 50+ mph while texting.  He has no intention of ever using that new service and wouldn't tolerate such an arrangement if he did.  I wonder if he ever flies into either the Oakland or San Francisco airports and notices how much easier it is to get to B.A.R.T. from those airports versus the pathetic excuse for transit access at Lindbergh?

      Shannon Biggs
      Shannon Biggs subscribermember

      @Chris Brewster   I respectfully disagree that Smart Building/density is a benefit to the general quality of life. Trolleys are noisy and dangerous. Overcrowding impacts health. Building without regard to topography and ecology, particularly in a catastrophic drought, will have long term consequences.

      I want San Diego to apply for more of those low emissions transportation grants and get public transportation that reaches all of us, including San Diego's aging population already scattered throughout the neighborhoods. Meanwhile, I want planning commissions to immediately require new construction for condos and apartments in all areas of the city to include affordable housing. There is a housing crisis right now as well as a transportation one. Smart Growth is limiting our solutions, and I no longer think it is worth it.

      Chris Brewster
      Chris Brewster subscribermember

      @Shannon Biggs Thanks for these thoughts. The problem is, it will never be cost effective to extend mass transit to far flung areas. The only way mass transit works such that it extends within walking distance of neighborhoods is if those neighborhoods are populated densely enough to offset the cost (or at least minimize the cost) of the transit system.

      Greg Martin
      Greg Martin subscriber

      The state should tell SANDAG to pound sand.  The threshold should be 1/4, not 1/2 mile much less 1 mile.  But this is the same SANDAG whose "improved" airport transit plan would force travelers to walk 400 feet including 80 feet across a road with 50+ mph speeds to make a connection between a trolley station and the nearest stop for an airport bus.  It's so blatantly obvious that SANDAG continues to push plans for projects none of the board members never intend on using.  The only way a 1 mile threshold might be remotely acceptable is if there was easily walkable and bikeable access to transit.  But SANDAG fails miserably there too favoring fast movement of autos above all else, including safety.  

      spoonman subscriber

      This project in the picture should be required to have higher density if near transit. I would not support putting project like this next to trolley stations if they are like this one...meager density. 

      Marcus Bush
      Marcus Bush subscriber

      @spoonman I totally agree that this project should be more dense. This project couldn't go any higher because it's adjacent to a creek and marsh. The developers found that the water table was too high and the soil too unstable to build anything higher. In addition, I think it's in the 100-year floodplain. But given the site constraints, 201 affordable units, a community park, and other amenities ain't bad. 

      lorisaldana subscriber

      As Chair of Assembly Housing & Community Development, my committee approved changing the distance of similar affordable housing programs from 1/4 to 1/2 mile from a transit station, to help communities qualify for this funding. We did this because we recognized the challenges, and need, for building more affordable (not "low income") housing. After all: Many full-time workers in San Diego are earning well above a "low income" level, but the high prices of housing keeps purchasing a home out of reach.

      So our Committee allowed this change, even though studies at that time showed most commuters prefer a shorter walking distance. But Members and staff wanted to encourage and fund more "transit friendly" housing projects, especially during the recession, as a way to support cities who incorporated these guidelines into their community plans.

      It's important to add that an essential goal of transit is to free people from the need to drive or even own cars. Once again, housing "affordability" factors into this: if someone is freed from paying for gas, insurance, repairs, and/or making monthly purchase or lease payments, they may be closer to qualifying for a loan to buy a home or pay rent.

      But if the trolley, bus or train station is too far away, transit users may still need to drive and park vs. walk to the nearest station, defeating that basic goal. It also may result in the need to purchase additional land for parking lots, which adds to project costs, ongoing operation and maintenance costs, traffic congestion, air quality impacts, and (for would-be transit user) on-going, expensive reliance on cars.

      Better to use land adjacent to the stations for affordable housing, as mentioned in the article, vs. parking. And better to encourage walking to transit, vs. driving.

      For all these reasons, I would oppose expanding requirements to a 1 mile distance, and join with others who are encouraging SANDAG to focus their long term goals on expanding transit and adding more stations.

      Robet Lawson
      Robet Lawson

      Why not make the trolley go where people ALREADY are. It's pathetic we don't have the trolley in HIllcrest, North Park, South Park, etc. - what possible more trolley-friendly part of the city is there? Who the hell looked at Santee and thought "Now THIS is the sort of walkable, dense development that calls for a trolley!"

      SANDAG almost seems like some sort of evil plot to build transit in the most ass-backwards way imaginable. "OK, we'll bring it to UCSD, but we'll go through miles and miles of low-density, transit-hostile territory to get there, with no stops. That way we burn lots and lots of cash to serve relatively few people!"

      Coming soon: an express line to Descanso!

      Greg Martin
      Greg Martin subscriber

      @Robet Lawson Any trolley access to those areas needs to be coupled with more allowable density and dedicated street space for the trolleys.  But the Uptown Planners continue to oppose any increase in density and any loss of general use lanes.  For now, Hillcrest still favors stagnation and decay over improved access and a more desirable neighborhood for people.

      Until neighborhoods are will to accept greater density, and that doesn't mean high rises, then Rapid bus service is a better option and preferably with dedicated lanes.

      Robet Lawson
      Robet Lawson

      @Greg Martin @Robet Lawson Well, I live in South Park and my dream would be to pedestrianize fern street and run a trolley up 30th. Given the relatively low traffic levels through South Park it MIGHT be feasible to do a shared-lane since it is narrow at points.

      However, I'm not an idiot, so the real plan is just to leave San Diego ASAP. It's pretty sad when even LA is building a far superior transit system.

      George in BayHo
      George in BayHo subscriber

      @Robet Lawson The trolley line to UCSD should run up Linda Vista Road to Genesee Ave, then north to UCSD.  It could service Sharp/Childrens Hospitals, Mesa College, Central Clairemont, University City along the way.

      Instead someone decided that the desolation of the Santa Fe railroad tracks was more appealing.  And it's now an unstoppable juggernaut.

      Ryan Housman
      Ryan Housman subscriber

      @Robet Lawson There used to be. SANDAG & the city would have to admit to their mistakes to install one again. If you went by the construction on Park Blvd. between University Ave. and El Cajon blvd/Washington, while they were building the 'rapid' dedicated bus lane, you could have noticed that they had to remove OLD trolley tacks to install it.

      ...backwards, is right.

      Shannon Biggs
      Shannon Biggs subscribermember

      @Robet Lawson Let's do exactly what you say with small electric shuttle buses, setting aside electric vehicle only lanes to speed their way. We won't have to lay an inch of track, and we can do it now. San Diego is aging rapidly. We need access to the hospitals. We need access to all of the neighborhoods. Let's run our electric public transport on the streets, not on rails. The technology is there. 

      richard cardullo
      richard cardullo

      SANDAG should be pressing the city of San Diego to ZONE the land located with 1/2 mile of a trolley station with higher density, not by making up lies about  transit ridership for projects 1 mile from a station.  Transit ridership has been studied for years and the 1/2 mile radius has been firmly established.  SANDAG sounds like the tobacco companies 30 years ago ie. "there is no proof that smoking causes cancer."

      The "Planning" Dept. for the city of San Diego has spent over $3 million for a new Southeast Community Plan that actually reduces density within the 1/2 mile radius of the Trolley stations in Logan Heights. How about the Marina district where the request to raise the height limit  to only 60 feet was rejected by the city council woman representing that district?  Why did SANDAG spend $2 billion  for a new trolley line and agree to put a trolley stop in Marina without requiring San Diego to increase zoning?  And guess what, SANDAG gave the city of San Diego's "Planning" Dept. $1.2 million for that zoning update for Logan Heights.  The money came from our !/2 cent sales tax money that we all pay.  Great use for the funds is it not? 

      Marcus Bush
      Marcus Bush subscriber

      Instead of trying to water down the criteria for the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program, SANDAG should work with the San Diego Housing Federation, MTS, and the local cities to improve transit and get more of these TOD projects shovel ready. 

      richard cardullo
      richard cardullo

      @Marcus Bush 

      You first have to start with higher density zoning near the trolley stops.  Without the zoning in place, nothing can happen.. 

      spoonman subscriber

      @richard cardullo @Marcus Bush Exactly. This project in the picture should be higher density if it is to be near a Trolley station. This project belongs in Penasquitos, not National City.