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SANDAG Asks State to Loosen the Purse Strings for Transit-Focused Housing

A new state program funds low-income housing projects near transit stations. Only two San Diego County projects made the cut. Now SANDAG is asking the state to lower the program’s standards for how close projects must be to stations, so that more local projects can compete.

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.

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.

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