Posts by Author: Josh Cohen

Seattle Raises the Equity Bar on Transit-Oriented Development

An earlier section of light rail tunnel under construction in Seattle, from 2011. (Credit: AP)

Over the next two decades, Sound Transit—the transit agency serving the greater Seattle area—will buy a lot of land as it builds out its second and third phases of light rail expansion. Much of that land will be used as staging areas for new station construction. As that construction wraps up, the agency will be left with surplus property that presents some of the best opportunity for affordable housing development in a region ever more hostile to low- and middle-income residents.

In the past, Sound Transit’s primary goal for surplus land was to sell it to the highest bidder to recoup expenses. The agency’s annual budget still assumes about $100 million in revenue from land sales. But in 2016, when Sound Transit asked the state legislature for the taxing authority necessary for light rail’s third phase, the legislature mandated a new affordable housing policy for the agency’s surplus land. The 80-80-80 policy requires Sound Transit to offer 80 percent of suitable surplus property to affordable housing developers that make at least 80 percent of units on site affordable to people earning 80 percent or less of area median income (AMI). In those cases, Sound Transit can sell land at below market value or even gift the land to affordable housing developers.

The “80-80-80” policy was a big step towards equitable transit-oriented development. Thanks to three years of lobbying by a coalition of housing, transportation and community advocates, the agency is taking their commitment to equitable transit-oriented development even further. In late April, the Sound Transit board adopted a new policy that defines equitable housing and economic development and establishes benchmarks for community engagement in project planning and surplus land disposition.

Jessica Ramirez, a coalition member and lead organizer with community advocacy organization Puget Sound Sage, says the new policy, “actually holds Sound Transit to the 80-80-80 rule in a way that it can be applied.”

“Our deepest desire is that before any land is acquired, before any land is disposed of, that the community folks who are most impacted by those changes are going to be the ones first informed so there can be a planning process that doesn’t tokenize them and really engages with and listens to the solutions they have,” says Ramirez.

Though transit-oriented development can be used to further affordable housing goals and further equity by providing inexpensive transportation, it can also harm affordability. Seattle’s Columbia City and north Beacon Hill neighborhoods — traditionally lower-income communities of color — both got light rail stations in the first phase of construction. In the years since, both have seen significant gentrification with expensive new apartments, single family homes, restaurants and shops. Near Angle Lake, Sound Transit’s newest light rail station in SeaTac, 170 residents of a mobile home park are fighting the owner’s plans to evict them and sell the land to a hotel developer.

“Sound Transit increases land value just by touching the land,” says Hester Serebrin, policy director at nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition. “A lot of people are looking to live near transit. [With this policy] it’s not just ‘we’re building this housing for someone,’ but creating a process to change the decision-making power to include folks most impacted who, in theory, could gain the most from the system.”

The new policy also pushes Sound Transit to think beyond housing on its surplus land and consider equitable commercial development as well. After all, small business owners can get displaced when land values rise and landlords seek out higher-dollar tenants.

“Housing and housing affordability aren’t the only ways to mitigate displacement,” says Ramirez. “This new policy comes with opportunities for small businesses to continue to operate in the neighborhoods they’ve grown to service and support. What does it look like for those business owners to create high growth jobs that not only allow employees to earn good incomes, but also live in the neighborhood they work in?”

The Sound Transit board’s adoption defines and clarifies the agency’s equitable transit-oriented development goals. Now it’s up to the agency staff to create a plan for implementation. That document will be put together over the next year.

“We have to put together a plan that reflects when those properties would be ready for public offering and establishes how to work with stakeholders and jurisdictions and developers to help us make plans in advance of those offerings,” says agency spokeswoman Kimberly Reason. “Going forward we’ll work with those groups to plan very consciously how do this in a way that will be consistent with providing affordable housing and creating vibrant communities around transit. It’s a very holistic approach to how we dispose of our properties.”

Though the implementation plan is still a year out, Ramirez already has some ideas about how Sound Transit might put the equitable transit-oriented development policy in action. In southeast Seattle’s Rainier Beach, she thinks surplus Sound Transit land could be used to house the Rainier Beach Action Coalition’s Food Innovation District, a plan to cluster food production, manufacturing and technology businesses around the light rail station to “provide access to career-path living-wage jobs.”

Ramirez also thinks surplus land near the Angle Lake Station could be a perfect test piece for equitable land use if the agency sells the land to the mobile home park residents fighting eviction. “It’s a great opportunity to be able to give the [mobile home park] residents the possibility of purchasing that land at a discounted rate,” she says, “So they can [move their trailers to land they own and] be rooted in place and live resiliently.”

 

Seattle Asks: Can Congestion Pricing Be Equitable?

The Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, soon to be replaced by a tunnel and converted into a toll road. (Credit: AP)

On paper, Seattle is doing a pretty good job of getting commuters out of their cars. The 2017 Commute Seattle survey found that 48 percent of downtown workers use transit to commute, while just 25 percent drive alone and another 10 percent carpool or use ride hailing services.

But, like most cities, driving through downtown Seattle at rush hour is still a block by block crawl through gridlock. Traffic research firm INRIX ranked Seattle’s congestion ninth worst in the nation in its most recent scorecard. Not to mention, passenger vehicles still account for 45 percent of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

In an effort to address both downtown gridlock and automobile emissions, Seattle may become the first city in the United States to implement a congestion pricing scheme. Found in just a few cities around the world, including London, Singapore and Stockholm, congestion pricing tolls drivers for entering certain zones of the city, typically the downtown core. In early April, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her support for studying congestion pricing and potentially implementing a scheme by the end of her first term in 2021.

In response to a request for interview, the mayor’s office provided a link to a blog post from Durkan. In it, she highlights the impact congestion pricing has had in other cities and writes, “We can reinvent our approach to transportation while also reducing carbon pollution. … We can build this future with fewer cars, more transit, and less pollution.”

Responses to Durkan’s announcement have fallen along mostly predictable lines. Urbanists and transportation advocates are excited. Lots of drivers hate the idea of paying tolls. Low-income community advocates have voiced concern over the potential impact fees could have on poor people who live in areas with poor transit service and little choice to drive. Interestingly, supporters and opponents of congestion pricing have both expressed concern about the impact a new toll could have on low-income residents (though whether that support is in good faith isn’t always clear).

The Seattle Department of Transportation is currently conducting a study to determine how best to implement congestion pricing. Council Member Mike O’Brien pushed to fund the $200,000 study in this year’s budget out of concern that when the Highway 99 tunnel opens in 2019 and introduces a tolling, there will be spillover to downtown streets if they remain free.

In a statement last December, O’Brien’s office expressed concern that drivers would shift to local streets to avoid tolls, noting that early models indicate that such diversion could have a significant negative impact on congestion on city streets and be specifically detrimental to transit and freight travel times.

According to O’Brien’s office, one of the goals of the congestion pricing study is to determine the demographics of Seattle drivers and who’s driving at peak hours as a baseline for creating an equitable tolling scheme. As is the case with sales and property taxes (the primary funding mechanism for government services in income taxless Washington), without some sort of price break or exemption, congestion pricing could be regressive with lower-income residents paying a higher share of their income to the fee compared with wealthier residents.

Katie Wilson, general secretary of the grassroots Seattle Transit Riders Union, says, “I share the concerns expressed by a number of organizations and people about equity. We need to make sure this doesn’t negatively impact low-income car drivers that don’t have a better option,” whether because their job isn’t near transit or their neighborhood has poor transit service.

Still, she says, “I think it’s definitely worth studying. It’s a very interesting idea. Certainly with the challenges ahead of us with transportation disruption and traffic congestion we need to be thinking big and this is a big idea.”

London, Stockholm and Singapore offer insight into the potential positive impacts of congestion pricing, as well as elements necessary for a more equitable tolling scheme.

In London, drivers pay a flat £11.50 (about US$16) to enter the center city on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. There are exceptions for taxis and Uber drivers, electric vehicles, drivers with disabilities among others. A 2013 study found that in its first decade, the tolls reduced traffic levels by 10 percent. During that period, the tolls generated £2.6 billion in gross revenue, about £1.2 billion of which was invested in public transit, road and bridge improvements and walking and cycling infrastructure.

There is some agreement among advocates and transportation experts that the regressiveness of congestion pricing can be offset to some extent if funds are used to improve public transit networks and levels of service. Wilson wants to see the city use funds for transit investments, significant expansion of the free fare program and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure investments. Though Durkan stated she wants to see a future with fewer cars and more transit, she has recently put the downtown streetcar project on hold and delayed expansion of parts of the downtown protected bike lane network until 2021.

Stockholm’s scheme uses variable pricing depending on the time of day from a little over US$4 at peak hours to about US$1.30 in the middle of the day. There is no charge on weekends, holidays or at night and there are also exceptions for certain types of vehicles and drivers. A study of the scheme found that traffic levels dropped 20 percent after implementation. Unsurprisingly, with fewer cars on the street, air quality improved with about an 8 percent drop in nitrogen dioxide and a 15 percent drop in the amount of soot and particulate matter.

Using peak and non-peak hour pricing is another way to potentially make congestion pricing more equitable. Though we won’t know exactly who drives when in Seattle, an analysis of American Community Survey data from Portland, Oregon gives a sense. In that analysis, City Observatory found that overall, “the median [family] income of those who commute to work by car is more than 50 percent greater than those who aren’t workers or who travel by other modes.” At peak hours, the median family income is $85,000, 20 percent higher than those who drive for work at other hours. The findings are explained in part by the fact that some low-income residents who rely on cars for work at service jobs or for in-home care or construction don’t work 9 to 5 hours.

None of the cities with existing congestion schemes have offered a price break based on income, an idea floated by O’Brien and others. It is likely complicated to do so. Wilson thinks it could potentially be connected to the low-income transit card program ORCA LIFT, but says making registration for discounted congestion tolls overly burdensome for people is also not ideal.

The Seattle Department of Transportation is aiming to complete its congestion pricing study by October. Once it’s complete, it’s sure to be a heavy political lift to get a congestion pricing scheme in place.

While Seattle could be the first U.S. city to implement congestion pricing, it’s not the first to discuss it. New York has been debating the issue for a decade now. San Francisco has been studying the issue for even longer.

 

Affordability and Sustainability Drive Parking Requirement Reduction

The "Sinking Ship Parking Garage" in Seattle's Pioneer Square. (Photo by plusgood via Flickr)

Seattle Shoupistas had cause to celebrate this week. On Monday, the city council passed a package of parking regulation reforms that eliminates parking minimums in some areas, uncouples rent from parking space cost, increases bike parking requirements and more.

Channeling former UCLA professor Donald Shoup’s research on the high cost of building mandatory parking spaces, councilmembers presented the reforms as a way to increase housing affordability as well as address greenhouse gas emissions.

“Fundamentally I come to this because I believe it’s unfair for us to have parking that’s abundant and free and housing that is scarce and expensive. I’m working hard to change that,” said Councilmember Rob Johnson, the legislation’s lead sponsor, at Monday’s council meeting.

The bill expands the boundaries of transit-oriented development and modifies the definition of high-frequency transit to increase the areas where developers are not required to provide any parking spaces for commercial or residential buildings. Though not required, developers may build parking if they so choose. The new definition exempts buildings within a quarter mile of high-frequency bus stops and a half mile of light rail stops from the city’s parking minimums (typically about one space per unit for apartment buildings). It also eliminates parking requirements for all nonprofit affordable housing developments in the city.

Building parking is expensive, especially the underground parking often found in urban developments. A 2015 report from King County Metro found that each space costs an average of $20,000 to $40,000 to build and that about 30 to 40 percent of off-street parking goes unused each night. That construction expense gets passed on to tenants in the form of higher rents.

According to Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, 27 percent of Seattle renters don’t own cars. Despite that, the number of cars in Seattle has kept pace with its booming population growth. From 2010 to 2015, the city’s population grew by 12 percent as did the number of cars. That fact had plenty of public commenters on Monday raising concerns about the impact the loss of off-street parking minimums would have on on-street parking.

The lone vote against the bill, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, was also worried about the impact it would have, especially for low-income residents who live in areas poorly served by transit and rely on cars for work and other responsibilities. She introduced a failed amendment that would’ve allowed the Department of Construction and Inspections to do parking mitigation — i.e. require more parking — when developments that don’t have to meet parking minimums are being constructed in areas where on-street parking is already at 85 percent capacity.

Beyond addressing parking minimums, the bill allows shared-use of off-street parking facilities. Under previous regulations, residential buildings were prohibited from allowing non-residents from using parking in their lots. Thanks to the bill, anyone will be able to pay to use excess off-street parking, either for an evening when on-street parking is full or for long-term parking, allowing residents in new construction built without parking to take advantage of excess parking in a nearby building.

The bill also requires commercial and residential buildings to unbundle rent from parking costs. In other words, parking will be an added charge and building managers can’t charge people for parking they don’t use. According to Sightline senior researcher Dan Bertolet, many apartment buildings in Seattle were already going this direction on their own. But, he says, “Unbundling makes parking more transparent. When people realize they’re paying $200 a month for parking they might opt out or get by with one car instead of two, then the market builds less of it which is what we want.”

The wide-reaching bill makes a few more tweaks to off-street parking regulations. It also streamlines bicycle parking regulations and increases the amount of bicycle parking buildings are required to provide.

Urbanists are, unsurprisingly excited about the changes. “It’s good stuff. It’s been a long time coming,” says Bertolet.

Though much of the conversation centered on eliminating parking to reduce the cost of rent, Councilmember Mike O’Brien took time Monday to highlight the environmental role parking reduction plays as well.

“This is a city committed to reducing the impacts of climate change,” he said. “The work on climate we’re doing and protection of free on-street parking are mutually exclusive. … We need to commit as a community to taking actions to fight climate change locally. We’re going to have to take hundreds of actions like this one today. These are hard actions because they require each of us to slightly change the way we live in our communities.”

Johnson echoed the sentiment, saying, “We know that about 70 people are moving to Seattle each day and know that we can’t absorb 70 cars a day and live in a world with clean air, that’s free from traffic violence and is cheaper.”

According to the city’s recently released climate report, transportation accounts for 66 percent of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions and passenger vehicles are the source of 50 percent of those transportation emissions.

The bill passed with a 7 to 1 vote. In a statement released after its passage, Donald Shoup gave his nod of approval. “Seattle Council Bill 119221 aims to ensure that only drivers will have to pay for parking, which seems fair,” Shoup said. “People who cannot afford a car or choose not to own a car should not have to pay anything for parking. If drivers don’t pay for their parking, someone else has to pay for it, and that someone is everyone. But a city where everyone happily pays for everyone else’s free parking is a fool’s paradise.”

 

Berkeley is Turning to the Blockchain for City Funding

(Photo by Joe Parks)

In an effort to reduce their reliance on federal and state funding, the City of Berkeley is turning to a surprising source: cryptocurrency. The idea is to leverage the blockchain — the technology that makes bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies possible — to spur private, crowdfunded investment in affordable housing and other local projects.

Led by Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Councilmember Ben Bartlett, the city is partnering with University of California Berkeley’s Blockchain Lab and finance technology company Neighborly to create an initial coin offering. The offering will allow individuals to buy Berkeley’s cryptocurrency to fund city-issued municipal bonds. The money raised will pay for things such as affordable housing, homeless shelters, ambulances, street trees, even a community theater. Coin owners will potentially be able to spend the cryptocurrency at some Berkeley businesses. As with any municipal bond, investors who get in on the offering will earn a small return on their investment over time as the city pays them back with interest.

The idea grew out of concern over the impact corporate tax cuts (not to mention threats to cut funding to sanctuary cities) would have on their ability to address their affordable housing and homelessness crises. With lower corporate tax rates, corporations have less incentive to buy low income housing tax credits, a key source of affordable housing funding. In addition, big banks raised interest rates on loans to local governments in the wake of the tax cuts.

We have over a thousand homeless people in Berkeley and expect that to grow by a factor of five,” says Bartlett. “We knew we needed to find a way to fund these things. This need is going to grow and it’s already a disaster that’s affecting our moral and physical integrity as a city.”

Beyond that, Bartlett says conventional municipal bonds are expensive, slow and have lots of red tape for investors, making it hard for individuals to invest in them at all, let alone in the small denominations most people might have to invest. With their idea, bonds could be smaller and be issued more quickly.

Neighborly was launched to do just that — to allow individuals to crowdfund municipal bonds. Austin issued a bond on the platform to pay for historic preservation. Cambridge, Mass., used it to fund schools and utility infrastructure.

Berkeley’s idea operates on a similar principle, but will use the blockchain technology to improve security and transparency, factors they hope will help spur investment (and provides a bit of flashy tech-factor that Bay Area residents might find appealing).

“You conceive of an idea, get the costs ready, push it out to the community, they can buy it right away,” Bartlett explains. “It’s more flexible. It doesn’t have to be a $100 million bond for a sewer. It could be smaller projects and with the lower denomination ability…It’s projected to be 50 percent less expensive to the issuer [than conventional municipal bonds].”

In simplified terms, a blockchain is a database stored concurrently on a peer-to-peer network of computers, making it less vulnerable than storing everything on a central server. Each copy of the database serves as a permanently available public record of every transaction on the blockchain. The technology keeps every copy of the database updated as people buy and exchange each “coin.”

“It’s immutable. It’s transparent. There might be fewer concerns about misappropriation of funds,” explains Stacie Olivares-Castain, who recently became state of California’s first ever senior advisor for impact investments and blockchain.

Olivares-Castain says she is encouraged by Berkeley’s experiment. “It’s very, very early, but what we’re starting to see is the blockchain can be used to improve a sense of individual agency and create more opportunity. The Neighborly model is a very interesting partnership. I think it could be used by other communities, too…Through the blockchain, there’s more democratization of access to capital.”

There are plenty of criticisms of cryptocurrency — coin wallets getting hacked, the wild fluctuation of currency value, the absurd amount of energy bitcoin “miners” consume to run their computers as they continually search for new bitcoin tokens produced somewhat randomly by digital algorithm. Bartlett says none of those issues apply to Berkeley’s project. There will be no coin “mining” for Berkeley’s coins, so the city’s coins “won’t be a tool for speculation. It has a set rate of return at darn near public rates,” he explains.

There are still plenty of details to work out in the plan, but the city is aiming to launch its initial coin offering in May. Bartlett says he’s already fielding calls about it from cities in the U.S. and abroad and is confident that there’s a future for their approach to city funding.

“Digitization, crowdfunding—these are just social impact bonds for the next generation,” he says. “For cities to survive this escalating disinvestment in the public trust, we’re going to have to start thinking outside the box and creating our own resources.”

 

Portland Wants to Keep Transit Fare Evaders out of Court

Portland City Hall (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

In a move meant to make fare enforcement more equitable and bring fines in line with other cities, Portland’s TriMet transit system is rolling out a new fare evasion penalty policy. The tiered system offers a scale of fines that increase with subsequent offenses, provides an option to work off fines with community service and a chance for low-income riders to get their fine waived. Equally important, the new policy will give offenders 90 days to resolve the fine before it gets adjudicated in court.

Currently, TriMet’s $175 fare evasion fine is among the most expensive in the country. Seattle’s Sound Transit offers a warning to first time offenders and charges $126 for every offense after that. San Francisco’s Muni gives out fines up to $110. Dallas’s DART system fines fare evaders just $50.

Under the new system, TriMet will fine fare evaders $75 for their first offensive, $100 for the second, $150 for the third, and $175 for the fourth and beyond. In lieu of the fine, people will have the option of performing 4, 7, 12 and 15 hours of community service for the first, second, third and fourth offensives respectively. Finally, low-income riders will be able to get the fine waived for their first offensive if they qualify for TriMet’s soon-to-launch low-income fare card program or the Honored Citizen program for senior riders on Medicare and riders with disabilities. If the rider enrolls in one of those programs within 90 days and loads at least $10 on their card, TriMet will waive the fine.

“In all the research we’ve done on citations and how agencies handle these, I’ve never come across an agency who does it in a way that helps facilitate people into their low-income fare program. … This gives us a vehicle to encourage people to enroll in the low-income program,” explained TriMet senior deputy general council Erik Van Hagen at the Jan. 24 TriMet Board meeting.

In addition to making the fines less burdensome for riders, TriMet wanted to take the process out of the courts. Currently, all fare evasion fines are adjudicated in the county court system. In a press statement provided by a TriMet spokesperson, the agency recognizes that there can be “unwanted consequences when citations go into the court system. A court record can affect a person’s ability to get a job, rent a house or serve in the military.”

Fines will now be dealt with by TriMet as an administrative matter if paid within 90 days. After 90 days, the process is turned over to the courts. San Francisco decriminalized fare evasion in 2008. Last year, a Cleveland municipal court ruled it was unconstitutional for Cleveland’s transit agency to use police as fare checkers, though non-law enforcement checkers are still allowed. Washington D.C. is currently considering decriminalizing fare evasion.

“It’s a great step in the right direction to make sure we have a decriminalized system,” says María Hernández Segoviano, advocacy coordinator with OPAL, a Portland grassroots environmental justice group that helped push for this policy change. “It is especially important when in Portland and other cities when we continually see [disproportionate] enforcement happening to people of color.”

A 2016 Portland State University analysis of TriMet fare enforcement did not find evidence of racially biased enforcement. But the analysis did find statistically significant evidence that black TriMet riders caught without a ticket more likely to get a temporary ban from transit than white riders and other groups.

Hernández Segoviano argues that the best way to decriminalize fare evasion is to make transit free. “There are some folks who just cannot afford the transit system. … Some individuals who evade fares are making hard choices between transit tickets and other essentials.”

Free transit was never on the table as part of the policy change, but OPAL and other community groups did advocate for a lower set of fines. Hernández Segoviano says there was a call for the fines starting at $50 and capping out at $111 (TriMet’s survey of 25 transit agencies around the country found that the average fine was $111). There was also a call for letting people off with a warning for their first offense.

There was debate on the board over a $50 or $75 starting point. Several board members worried that a $50 fine would not be a serious enough threat to encourage riders to pay their fare. Board member Lori Irish Bauman said at the Jan. 24 meeting, “There’s a risk that riders don’t pay their fare on the chance that they won’t get caught and if they do they’ll say, ‘heck it’s just $50.’ Going forward we need to look at the extent to which there are more riders not paying fares because we reduced the penalty to $75.”

The new policy will be implemented this July. The board members and Hernández Segoviano agree that it will be critical to make sure transit riders understand their new options. According to Van Hagen, TriMet is working to update the tickets themselves to explain the changes and train fare enforcement officers to explain the new policy when issuing the fines.

 

Seattle Proposes New Tax on Businesses to Fund Affordable Housing

In this Oct. 30, 2017 file photo, Dave Chung, who says he has been homeless for five years, settles in for the night at a bus shelter in Seattle. As Seattle's economy has boomed, the number of homeless people in King County has grown and the affordable housing gap has increased. (AP photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Washington State famously has no income tax, relying on sales and property taxes to fund everything from housing to transportation to education. It has the most regressive tax system in the country, with low-income residents paying vastly more of their income than wealthier residents. That disparity is perhaps starkest in Washington’s largest city: A 2016 study of U.S. tax burdens found Seattle had the dubious honor of being the only city in the country to be in the top 5 highest burdens for people earning $25,000 and top 5 lowest burdens for people earning more than $150,000.

The city wants to changet that. Last week, Seattle’s Progressive Revenue Task Force released its final recommendations for an Employee Hours Tax (EHT) to fund affordable housing construction and homeless services. If adopted by the city council, the proposal, which would tax employers based on their revenue and number of employees, would generate an estimated $75 million annually. In addition, the task force proposed several other progressive revenue streams that could raise another $75 million a year.

As the cost of living continues to climb skyward in Seattle, the number of homeless people in King County has grown to more than 11,600 and the affordable housing gap has increased. The Housing Development Consortium, a Seattle-based nonprofit, estimates the city will need more than 20,000 new units of housing affordable to people earning 0 to 30 percent of Area Median Income (currently $0 to $20,200 for a single person) in the next decade. The task force calculates meeting that need will cost $340 million a year for 10 years.

“Absolutely [an EHT] wouldn’t solve the homelessness crisis. But $75 million a year will have an impact and $150 million will have a bigger impact. … There’s a strong recognition that the affordable housing shortage is a major driver of homelessness crisis. Without greatly increasing the affordable housing stock, we’re never going to be able to deal with the homelessness crisis,” says Katie Wilson, a task force member and head of the Transit Riders Union, a grassroots group that advocates for low-income transit riders and renters.

The goal of the task force—created last November after the city council rejected a different version of an EHT—was to find a progressive revenue stream to fund that need.

“When we look at how to address the homelessness crisis it’d be nice to not just slap on more regressive taxes that disproportionally burden low and middle income people,” says Wilson. “There’s also a question of how much we can just keep raising regressive taxes, before we see political and voter push back.”

A tax on employers scaled by annual gross revenue and number of employees is more equitable than another property levy or sales tax increase. The task force proposed three options for structuring the EHT. The first would affect companies earning $10 million annually in gross revenue. They would pay a percentage of total payroll, based on how many employees they have, between 1/4 of 1 percent up to 3/4 of 1 percent. The other two options have a lower threshold of $8 million per year in gross revenue and charge a flat rate per employee per year that increases for companies with more than 500 employees. In all three scenarios, the task force recommends a flat $200 per year “skin in the game” fee for companies earning less than the threshold.

It’s hard to estimate what companies might pay under the first scenario, because payroll info is not public. At the high end, the city’s most talked-about employer, Amazon, which had about 40,000 employees in Seattle in 2017, would pay roughly $18 million a year in EHT under the second proposal.

The task force recommends 80 percent of the EHT revenue be spent on housing construction and 20 percent spent on homeless services and shelters, an approach that Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, supports. She says, “It is more or less the right direction. We need to prioritize creating homes and getting people into those homes. It’s equally imperative that we not ignore the immediate critical plight of people who don’t have a safe place to lay their heads.”

Though Eisinger also points out $75 to $150 million a year is not enough to meet the affordable housing need by itself, she’s buoyed by the direction things are heading. “It is really significant that we are not pretending that another $10 or $20 million here or there is what we need.

“We’ve come to a watershed moment where people are really grasping that if we want things to be better for people living here, we need to fix our upside-down tax structure.”

Eisinger points out that an EHT would give the city a new steady revenue stream to bond against, further increasing its ability to make the needed capital investments in affordable housing.

In addition to the EHT, the task force outlined several recommendations for generating another $75 million without relying on regressive taxes. They include taxes on speculative real estate investment, second homes and vacant or unoccupied properties, an increase in the Real Estate Excise Tax on high-value properties and a local estate tax. Most of the proposals would require the city to seek new authority from the state legislature. The additional recommendations would be considered separate from the EHT.

The city council has no obligation to adopt the task force’s recommendations. But given that EHTs aren’t completely new ground for Seattle, advocates are hopeful about the tax’s chances. The city adopted an EHT in 2006 to fund transportation improvements. Companies paid a flat $25 per employee per year, which was projected to raise $50 million over 10 years. The tax was repealed during in 2009 during the Great Recession.

Last November, the council narrowly rejected an EHT that would’ve raised $25 million annually. The reasons for the rejection included a lack of input from businesses, a feeling that the EHT process had been rushed, and a lack of specificity about how the new revenue would be spent. Hence the task force. In creating the task force, the council set a deadline of taking action on the EHT by March 26 or “early enough to ensure that EHT revenues can be imposed as of January 1, 2019.”

The council likely won’t meet that March 26 goal, but both Wilson and Eisinger hope that they’re still moving with the urgency to get the tax in place at the start of next year.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect revenue source,” says Eisinger. “But I think everybody understands we cannot wait for the perfect to do something good and important now.”

 

Advocates Call on MTA to Make New Fare Technology Fairer

The swipeable MetroCard is being phased out, which transit advocates say represents a huge opportunity. (Photo: Mr. T In DC)

After 25 years, the end is drawing nigh for New York City’s iconic, yellow MetroCard. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced last fall that it would begin phasing in a new fare payment system that will allow riders to use mobile payments such as Apple Pay, tap a contactless bank card or tap a MTA smart card at turnstiles and on buses. The swipeable MetroCard is outmoded technology compared to the smart cards most cities have adopted over the last few decades. As MTA begins the lengthy rollout of its 21st-century fare payment system, transit advocates are pushing the agency to use the capabilities of the new technology to make the country’s largest transit system faster, more equitable and easier to use.

A new report from TransitCenter makes the case for new policies MTA should adopt as it implements the system. In it, they argue for all-door boarding for every bus, fare capping so low-income riders pay the same as wealthier riders, integration with mobility services such as bike-share and better real-time system data sharing.

“The new, next generation tech offers really good possibility for riders if the MTA seizes the opportunity,” says report co-author Colin Wright, a TransitCenter advocacy associate. “We’ve seen transit agencies elsewhere use modern fare payment systems to adopt policies that make transit faster, more convenient, and fairer for riders and we can do that too. It’s simply a matter of MTA leadership choosing to adopt the policies.”

TransitCenter has long advocated for system-wide, all-door bus boarding. Allowing riders to enter from any door reduces dwell time (the time it takes for passengers to load the bus and pay), which improves over all speed and on-time performance. New York already uses all-door boarding on its Select Bus Service (SBS) routes. On some SBS routes, dwell times dropped 28 to 40 percent and ridership increased by as much as 30 percent. The smart cards and mobile payments will make it easier to put fare readers at every bus door. For high ridership stops, TransitCenter recommends adding curbside readers to further speed up the process.

Because the new fare system will require each rider to have their own account, MTA will be able to track the number of rides a person takes within a given period. That makes it possible for MTA to implement fare capping. Fare capping makes it so riders who cannot afford the upfront cost of a monthly, unlimited pass (currently $121 in New York), don’t end up paying more in the end. After a user’s single-ride payments add up to the cost of a monthly pass, the rest of their rides that month are free, as if they had purchased a monthly pass to begin with. London was one of the first cities to implement fare capping. Portland, OR recently started fare capping as well.

“It’s about basic economic fairness and making it easy for people to use this system as much as possible. It would be great to see MTA adopt fare capping to make the system as equitable as they can,” says Wright.

By integrating transit payments with payments for bike-share, car-share and other mobility providers, TransitCenter argues MTA can better compete with cabs and ride-hailing. The easier it is to grab a bike or car for the first or last mile of a trip, the likelier it is someone would choose to take the subway or a bus for the bulk of the journey, rather than a cab for the entire thing.

Finally, the new fare system is going to generate more detailed data than the current system does. MTA is currently consolidating several of its web services into a new all-encompassing user app that will provide trip planning, account management and real-time arrival info. Wright says MTA should take advantage of the new data options and app development to make the service as robust as possible. In addition to real-time train and bus arrival, the app could let users know when a subway station or bus is overcrowded, when a line is out of service, and even when station escalators and elevators and elevators are out of order.

Other transit advocates have voiced support for TransitCenter’s policy ideas. Stephanie Burgos-Veras, senior organizer with the grassroots advocacy group Riders Alliance, says she is particularly excited by the possibility of all-door boarding and fare capping. “We want to make sure everyone has access to transportation. Fares continue to go up. It’s becoming much more difficult for New Yorkers to afford to get on transit. … It’s not fair to have wealthier riders be able to get on trains whenever they want without thinking about it.”

Riders Alliance is a member of the Bus Turnaround Coalition, a group of advocates — including TransitCenter, the Tri-State Transportation Coalition and Straphangers Campaign — pushing for MTA to improve its long-suffering bus service.

In addition to the policies suggested by TransitCenter, Burgos-Veras wants to see the MTA do more outreach with the people most effected by the changes: the riders themselves. “We’re really focused on the grassroots side, ultimately. We want to make sure subway and bus riders are part of this conversation. It’ll be helpful to both the MTA and rider to have a dialogue about this important new system.”

MTA is phasing in the new fare payment system over the next six years. Riders won’t be able to pay with contactless bank cards and mobile wallets until next year. Despite that lengthy rollout, Wright says, “We’re on a tight timeline. We need the MTA board to take a stand on these policies and direct staff to study these issues.”

In a statement to the Wall Street Journal and amNY about the report, MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein said, “We are excited to introduce 21st-century fare payment technology to the MTA, which is a critical step towards truly modernizing our system and improving the customer experience. President [Andy] Byford is developing a comprehensive bus improvement strategy and as we said at the time [the New Fare Payment System] was approved last fall, All-Door Boarding is a concept we’re very supportive of.”

The policies are possible, but they will be far easier to implement upfront as the contractor Cubic develops MTA’s new system, rather than trying to add them later.

“Ultimately this new technology is just a means to an end,” says Wright. “It’s up to the MTA and elected leaders to use the technologies to the fullest.”

 

Advocates Call on MTA to Make New Fare Technology Fairer

The swipeable MetroCard is being phased out, which transit advocates say represents a huge opportunity. (Photo: Mr. T In DC)

After 25 years, the end is drawing nigh for New York City’s iconic, yellow MetroCard. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced last fall that it would begin phasing in a new fare payment system that will allow riders to use mobile payments such as Apple Pay, tap a contactless bank card or tap a MTA smart card at turnstiles and on buses. The swipeable MetroCard is outmoded technology compared to the smart cards most cities have adopted over the last few decades. As MTA begins the lengthy rollout of its 21st-century fare payment system, transit advocates are pushing the agency to use the capabilities of the new technology to make the country’s largest transit system faster, more equitable and easier to use.

A new report from TransitCenter makes the case for new policies MTA should adopt as it implements the system. In it, they argue for all-door boarding for every bus, fare capping so low-income riders pay the same as wealthier riders, integration with mobility services such as bike-share and better real-time system data sharing.

“The new, next generation tech offers really good possibility for riders if the MTA seizes the opportunity,” says report co-author Colin Wright, a TransitCenter advocacy associate. “We’ve seen transit agencies elsewhere use modern fare payment systems to adopt policies that make transit faster, more convenient, and fairer for riders and we can do that too. It’s simply a matter of MTA leadership choosing to adopt the policies.”

TransitCenter has long advocated for system-wide, all-door bus boarding. Allowing riders to enter from any door reduces dwell time (the time it takes for passengers to load the bus and pay), which improves over all speed and on-time performance. New York already uses all-door boarding on its Select Bus Service (SBS) routes. On some SBS routes, dwell times dropped 28 to 40 percent and ridership increased by as much as 30 percent. The smart cards and mobile payments will make it easier to put fare readers at every bus door. For high ridership stops, TransitCenter recommends adding curbside readers to further speed up the process.

Because the new fare system will require each rider to have their own account, MTA will be able to track the number of rides a person takes within a given period. That makes it possible for MTA to implement fare capping. Fare capping makes it so riders who cannot afford the upfront cost of a monthly, unlimited pass (currently $121 in New York), don’t end up paying more in the end. After a user’s single-ride payments add up to the cost of a monthly pass, the rest of their rides that month are free, as if they had purchased a monthly pass to begin with. London was one of the first cities to implement fare capping. Portland, OR recently started fare capping as well.

“It’s about basic economic fairness and making it easy for people to use this system as much as possible. It would be great to see MTA adopt fare capping to make the system as equitable as they can,” says Wright.

By integrating transit payments with payments for bike-share, car-share and other mobility providers, TransitCenter argues MTA can better compete with cabs and ride-hailing. The easier it is to grab a bike or car for the first or last mile of a trip, the likelier it is someone would choose to take the subway or a bus for the bulk of the journey, rather than a cab for the entire thing.

Finally, the new fare system is going to generate more detailed data than the current system does. MTA is currently consolidating several of its web services into a new all-encompassing user app that will provide trip planning, account management and real-time arrival info. Wright says MTA should take advantage of the new data options and app development to make the service as robust as possible. In addition to real-time train and bus arrival, the app could let users know when a subway station or bus is overcrowded, when a line is out of service, and even when station escalators and elevators and elevators are out of order.

Other transit advocates have voiced support for TransitCenter’s policy ideas. Stephanie Burgos-Veras, senior organizer with the grassroots advocacy group Riders Alliance, says she is particularly excited by the possibility of all-door boarding and fare capping. “We want to make sure everyone has access to transportation. Fares continue to go up. It’s becoming much more difficult for New Yorkers to afford to get on transit. … It’s not fair to have wealthier riders be able to get on trains whenever they want without thinking about it.”

Riders Alliance is a member of the Bus Turnaround Coalition, a group of advocates — including TransitCenter, the Tri-State Transportation Coalition and Straphangers Campaign — pushing for MTA to improve its long-suffering bus service.

In addition to the policies suggested by TransitCenter, Burgos-Veras wants to see the MTA do more outreach with the people most effected by the changes: the riders themselves. “We’re really focused on the grassroots side, ultimately. We want to make sure subway and bus riders are part of this conversation. It’ll be helpful to both the MTA and rider to have a dialogue about this important new system.”

MTA is phasing in the new fare payment system over the next six years. Riders won’t be able to pay with contactless bank cards and mobile wallets until next year. Despite that lengthy rollout, Wright says, “We’re on a tight timeline. We need the MTA board to take a stand on these policies and direct staff to study these issues.”

In a statement to the Wall Street Journal and amNY about the report, MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein said, “We are excited to introduce 21st-century fare payment technology to the MTA, which is a critical step towards truly modernizing our system and improving the customer experience. President [Andy] Byford is developing a comprehensive bus improvement strategy and as we said at the time [the New Fare Payment System] was approved last fall, All-Door Boarding is a concept we’re very supportive of.”

The policies are possible, but they will be far easier to implement upfront as the contractor Cubic develops MTA’s new system, rather than trying to add them later.

“Ultimately this new technology is just a means to an end,” says Wright. “It’s up to the MTA and elected leaders to use the technologies to the fullest.”

 

Cleveland Wants to Connect the Dots with Hundreds of Miles of Greenways

The ultimate goal of the Greenway Plan is to connect Cleveland to 59 other cities by bike and walking trails. (Photo courtesy Cuyahoga Greenways)

Last year, Cleveland Metroparks celebrated its centennial. For the past 100 years, the agency has been implementing founder William Stinchcomb’s vision for an “emerald necklace” of green space ringing Cleveland. Today, Metroparks manages 23,000 acres of parks and green space. Now, the agency, along with the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission and metropolitan planning organization NOACA, wants to expand on the emerald necklace with a new network of greenways and bike infrastructure connecting Cleveland’s parks with each other and with the 58 other cities and towns in Cuyahoga County.

If fully implemented, the Cuyahoga Greenway will eventually include hundreds of miles of linear parks with biking and walking trails as well as on-road bike lanes to provide more connectivity.

“We’re building off the excitement of the centennial of Metroparks, to think about what the next century will look like,” says Glenn Coyne, Cuyahoga County Planning Commission executive director. “We’re really thinking about how we connect the rest of the county with a system of greenways and regional trails that not only link into the emerald necklace and provide access to lakes and parks, but also connect inner and outer ring suburbs.”

The Greenway is still in the early planning stages. The planning commission is working with a consultant and hosting community meetings to establish the ideal routes for the greenway. Once they figure out the where, they’ll determine whether a dedicated trail or a bike lane is best for a given location.

Coyne says the fundamental goal of the trail and bike lane network is to encourage more people to bike. “The local communities are very interested in alternative forms of transportation. We don’t want to get in our car and drive everywhere. This is an effort to think about how can we use walking, biking and transit to get around and link up our communities.”

He continues, “We’ve emphasized all along that this is not just for the spandex commuter folks. It’s for everyone. Safety is a big concern.”

Unsurprisingly, bike advocates are encouraged by the possibilities of a bike network that connects the dots.

“It’s really exciting to have agencies thinking about connectivity on a much larger scale across the county,” says Jacob VanSickle, Bike Cleveland executive director. “Cleveland has done a good job over the last four to five years building out bikeways and trails, but in a lot of instances they don’t connect people anywhere. As you build out a connected network, you start to see more people out riding that you wouldn’t have previously seen because it’s a safe place to do it.”

Bike Cleveland focuses primarily on advocacy within Cleveland city limits. They are working with the city to update the Bikeway Master Plan, which they are pushing to include more protected bike lanes and center-running bike lanes that repurpose former streetcar lanes. The city population is currently less than half its 1950’s peak, leaving lots of space on its wide, auto-centric boulevards for protected bike infrastructure.

Bike Cleveland is also working with Rails to Trails Conservancy to do a connectivity analysis to determine gaps in their network and ideal locations for low-stress bike infrastructure. VanSickle says both the master plan and connectivity analysis should intersect well with the Greenway plan to improve biking conditions in the city and county.

Funding is always a challenge for implementing something like the Cuyahoga Greenway. Coyne says the number of governments involved in the Greenway’s implementation adds a unique difficulty. “Almost the entire county is incorporated as 59 cities,” he explains. “They all have their own home rule and authority for regulations and planning in community.”

Coyne says the planning commission is working now to gather input from all the communities in an effort to get buy in early. One of goals with the Greenway Plan is to have it act as a master list of projects that get integrated with local municipalities public works projects. Coyne says, “We’ll be able to build the greenway incrementally. As municipalities repave a road and build new developments, we can get these trails and bike lanes in.”

The Cuyahoga Greenway is still a long way from reality. Coyne points out it took decades for Metroparks to complete the 1917 emerald necklace vision. The planning commission is shooting for completing its final greenway plan this July.

This article is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.

 

New York Advocates See a Place for 21st-Century SROs

Stigma around single-room occupancy units in the first half of the 20th century led to new SROs being banned in New York, but a new report argues they should make a comeback. (Photo: Library of Congress)

For much of the last century, tiny apartments with private bedrooms and shared kitchens and bathrooms were standard fare in New York and other American cities. Known as Single Room Occupancies (SROs), they provided an affordable dwelling for low-income residents, newcomers, and single folks who didn’t need much space. But over time, SROs gained a reputation — only some of it deserved — as slummy havens for vice and crime. In the latter half of the 20th century, New York moved to outlaw new SROs and successfully phased out many existing ones.

But with the cost of living creeping ever higher in the city and more than 436,000 New Yorkers living alone and cost burdened by the rent they pay, housing advocates are thinking about 21st-Century SROs. A new report from New York University’s Furman Center looks at whether micro units and tiny apartments with shared amenities can be viable options for both renters and developers in today’s real estate market and explains what it would take to make modern SROs a reality.

“Safe, legal, well-enforced housing where single people can rent a room and share amenities is absolutely needed. The demand is clearly there,” says Sarah Watson, Citizens Housing Planning Council deputy director. She points out that many single people already treat multi-bedroom apartments as informal shared amenity units with roommates they find on Craigslist and there are likely more than 100,000 illegal SROs still in operation in New York.

The Furman Center modeled the development and operating costs and correlating rents for four unit types: a standard 400-square-foot studio with private bathroom and kitchen; a 300-square-foot micro-unit with private bathroom and kitchen; a 225-square-foot efficiency unit with private bathroom and shared kitchen; and a 160-square-foot efficiency with shared bathroom and kitchen.

For each unit style, they modeled the construction costs of a mid-rise building consisting of just that type of unit. They used four different land costs for each model: $0, $50, $200 and $450 per square foot. When the land is free, efficiencies with shared kitchens and baths could be rented for $840 per month while still being worthwhile to the developer. That rent would be considered affordable to someone earning 51 percent of area median income. A unit with a private bath and shared kitchen could cost $1,170/month. The 300-square-foot micro unit could cost $1,240/month and the standard 400-square-foot studio could cost $1,480/month.

At the highest land cost, $450 per square foot, Furman Center found similarly deep savings for the smallest units. For the smallest efficiency unit, rent could be $1,340 per month. A standard studio could be $2,360 per month, which requires a tenant earning 142 percent of AMI to afford. The average cost to rent a Brooklyn studio is currently $2,190 a month, according to Rent Café.

Furman Center Executive Director Jessica Yager says they imagine both nonprofit and market rate developers pursuing micro units and shared-amenity efficiencies. But there are some major legal and practical barriers to overcome before that can happen.

Nonprofit housing providers and hospitals can operate existing efficiency units with private rooms and shared bathrooms and kitchens. But in the push to rid the city of SROs, New York banned the creation of new market-rate SROs and rooming houses. The Furman Center says a revised law that allowed market-rate efficiencies would help meet demand while giving the city better oversight on the quality of units.

Separately, a zoning law known as density factor makes sub-400-square-foot micro-units impractical at best. The density factor rule limits the number of units per lot. Under the current formula, a developer could not build enough micro units to fill their building. The report suggests removing the density factor or increasing the number of units permitted in certain areas, such as those with good transit access.

Both nonprofit and market rate developers have a hard time financing micro-unit and efficiency projects. “It’s not a very well tested housing type in New York. Private lenders are wary,” says Yager.

But that is changing slowly as more micro units and other tiny housing types get built in New York and elsewhere. New York’s first modern micro-unit building opened in 2016. Carmel Place was a Mayor Michael Bloomberg administration pilot project. It has 55 studios ranging from 260 to 360 square feet.

“There’s definitely still a stigma around SROs because of some of the experience of the last century,” says Yager. “[But] Carmel Place did really help push the conversation forward. There’s a growing acceptance that small spaces can be well run and safe, healthy spaces to live and can be built more cheaply.”

Efforts to create modern SROs in other cities have been met with pushback. In 2009, Seattle developers began building housing with tiny, 140-square-foot units. Protests over density and the suitability of tiny living spaces led to larger minimum unit sizes and other requirements that ultimately increased the cost of rent.

Yager thinks New York could alleviate concerns with a city-backed pilot project like they had with Carmel Place. They could test a shared-amenity model and work out the kinks before opening it to market-rate developers.

To Watson’s mind, people are going to seek out spaces they can afford, legal or no, so the city should work to make it above board. “The bottom line is people are already sharing,” she says. “They’re already living in these arrangements in the hundreds of thousands because that’s just the reality of living in this city. We have to try to do it safe and legally, not informally.”

 



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