Last week, when voters overwhelmingly approved Measure M, they embraced a new vision for the region that greatly expands public transit, with new rail lines and busways crisscrossing the county.
Measure M imposes a permanent sales tax increase that will raise $120 billion over four decades to help fund more than a dozen major transit projects in Los Angeles county. Those include new rapid transit lines through the middle of the San Fernando Valley, through South Los Angeles, through East Los Angeles and between Artesia and downtown L.A., and over the Sepulveda Pass, among many others.
Over the next 40 years, those projects will transform how Angelenos travel, giving them fast, convenient public transit options if they don’t want to sit in traffic. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority hopes the Measure M projects will eventually triple the number of regular transit riders in the county.
But the projects could also radically change the communities where new light-rail lines and subway stations are located — for better and for worse. While some neighborhoods may welcome the public investment and real estate boom that often follow the arrival of new metro lines, others have a legitimate fear that longtime residents will be pushed out as transit projects spur a sharp increase in housing prices and an influx of higher-income residents.
While many of the projects funded by Measure M are still years away from construction, much less completion, it would be wise to start planning now to ensure that these vital transportation projects don’t inadvertently displace the very residents and businesses they’re designed to serve. That happens far too often.
Researchers at UCLA have been studying the impact of public transit investments in Los Angeles County. They found that from 2000 to 2013, neighborhoods near light-rail stops or subway stations — particularly in Hollywood, Highland Park and downtown — were more likely to experience greater increases in white, college-educated, higher-income households and greater increases in the cost of rents, than neighborhoods not near stations. The transit-adjacent neighborhoods also were more likely to see greater decreases in low-income households and residents with less than a high school diploma.
This is a big concern for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Low-income workers who live near stations are three times more likely to ride transit than wealthier workers, who are more likely to own cars and drive. That’s why Metro’s board of directors last year decided that when it sold or leased land for development near its stations, it would require in most cases that developers make 35% of all the new apartments and condos affordable for low-income residents. The idea is to make sure that low- and moderate-income Angelenos — who make up 80% of Metro's ridership — are not completely priced out of neighborhoods where new rail stations open.
But Metro only controls a small amount of the land around its stations. Planning, land-use and economic development policies are the responsibilities of the cities where the transit stops are located, or, in the case of unincorporated areas, of the county. There is a growing list of tools municipalities can use to limit the broad displacement of poorer residents when a neighborhood gentrifies. They include rent-control laws; “just cause” eviction laws that make it harder for landlords to oust tenants simply in order to raise rents; “no-net-loss” policies that require the replacement of lost affordable units in new developments; “right of return” policies that guarantee tenants an affordable unit if a building is redeveloped; “inclusionary zoning” rules that require affordable units to be included in new development; and community land trusts that preserve affordable housing in perpetuity.
Some of these policies are becoming commonplace and some are deeply controversial or may not work in certain communities. Voters in the city of Los Angeles, for instance, just passed Measure JJJ, which, among other things, directs the government to offer incentives for affordable housing within a half-mile of major transit stops.
There are lots of possible approaches. The key point is that Measure M will transform the region, and the sooner local governments start to plan, the easier it will be to avoid hurting the communities that public transit can most help.