Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Why Los Angeles County Could Lose $3 Billion in Affordable Housing

(AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

Despite Los Angeles’ new bond for homeless housing and recently-approved linkage fees, the surrounding county is at risk of losing $3 billion worth of affordable housing over the next half-decade, radio station KPCC reports.

The slow death of fully public development — which has been replaced steadily with public-private partnerships — is partially to blame, the California Housing Partnership Corporation (CHPC) told L.A. officials last week, according to the station. Today, private developers often use public funds for construction, and in exchange agree to rent units at a reduced rate for a set time period. When that period expires, the developer is free to raise the rent; owners of Section-8 funded apartments operate under a similar agreement. As properties age and incur maintenance costs, the risk increases that landlords will, in fact, raise the rent.

In Los Angeles County, 11,000 units fall into the public-private partnership category, CHPC said in its presentation last week.

As Next City has covered, L.A. officials are scrambling to deal with an unprecedented housing and homelessness crisis. L.A. Metro has studied placing supportive services on its properties, for example allowing people who live in their cars to park at Metro-owned stations and shower at bus storage yards. In 2016, voters approved Proposition HHH, a $1.2-billion bond expected to fund the construction of 10,000 new units for homeless and low-income people over the next ten years (24 projects have been approved so far). Last year, L.A. City Council approved a plan to impose so-called linkage fees on higher-end development to fund the construction of below-market-rate units.

And to a certain extent, homeowners are joining in. A series of state legislative tweaks in 2016 and 2017 reduced regulations on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and in 2017 L.A. residents filed nearly 2,000 applications to convert their basements, garages and backyard cottages into low-cost housing (only 90 applications were filed in 2015 before the regulations were reduced).

But all of those city-led measures don’t erase the fact that federal and state resources are drying up. In anticipation of federal tax reform, low-income housing tax credits have plummeted in value, KPCC reports. In 2017, L.A. County saw a 21 percent decline in tax credit funding for new affordable homes.

And the state’s 2012 shutdown of city Redevelopment Agencies hasn’t helped matters. Those agencies were supposed to set aside 20 percent of their property tax revenues for affordable housing projects. In L.A., that translated to about $50 million annually, the city’s housing department recently told the Los Angeles Times.

Compounding that loss, the city opted to spend state funds that would have gone to the agencies (before they were shut down) on city services such as law enforcement, firefighters and pensions, rather than on affordable housing, the paper reports.

From the L.A. Times story:

Some jurisdictions, including Oakland and Emeryville, dedicated a similar percentage of boomerang funds to housing or helping the poor after redevelopment ended. However, many California cities and counties were reluctant to do the same, facing pressure to spend money to restore services and increase salaries for government employees in the aftermath of the recession.

L.A. County needs to identify affordable housing that’s at risk of evaporating and provide incentives for landlords to keep the units low-cost, CHPC President Matt Schwartz said last week, according to KPCC.

“Over a ten-year period, if there are not further changes … we could be short about 70,000 affordable homes [state-wide],” he said.

 

Houston Passes New Building Rules for Flood Resilience

Downtown Houston during Hurricane Harvey (AP Photo/Jason Dearen)

When the waters of Hurricane Harvey receded, a staggering number of Houston-area residents were left with steep cleanup costs — and no insurance to help them out. That’s because, as Next City has covered, their homes weren’t located in the region’s supposed flood plain, so they hadn’t been required by FEMA to buy flood insurance.

Now, Houston officials want to effectively widen the region’s flood plain parameters — a sentiment that deviates from Houston’s historically hands-off approach to zoning.

City councilors voted 9-7 Wednesday to mandate that all new homes built in the region’s floodplains be elevated two feet above the projected water level in a 500-year storm, the Houston Chronicle reports. Current regulations stipulate only that buildings built in the 100-year floodplain be constructed one foot above the flood level projected for those (less severe) storms.

“This is a defining moment,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in his pitch to the council before the Wednesday vote. “Can we undo what was done with Harvey? No. But can we build looking forward? Yes. Does it mean it may cost more financially? Yes. But if it has the probability of saving lives, and if it has the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come to our city that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.”

The 2017 hurricane season showed in no uncertain terms that FEMA’s city-by-city flood maps were no match for climate change, as Next City has covered. And while the federal agency has begun redrawing New York City’s flood-risk maps with rising sea levels and stronger storms in mind, it hasn’t yet gotten to the country’s other major cities.

In Houston, Republican City Councilor Greg Travis suggested the city roll back the new rules so they only apply to the 100-year floodplain once FEMA releases new maps. Turner, however, opposed the move, “arguing against binding city regulations to maps that do not yet exist,” according to the paper.

The fact that Houston’s move pre-dates the maps was commended by a FEMA representative, who sent a letter to the city this week, the Chronicle reports.

“In order for the nation to be more resilient, many communities will need to take these forward leaning steps,” the representative wrote. “We will be looking to Houston to lead the nation in its resilience and capacity to shape policies that keep citizens safe through all hazards.”

 

Nashville Mayor Makes a Case for ‘Transportation Independence’

(Photo by Michael Rivera)

In just one month, Nashville residents will vote on a $5.4 billion transit plan that could radically reshape their city — and both the policy’s supporters and detractors are going into overdrive to get their respective messages across.

Nashville’s acting mayor David Briley (who was sworn in last month after former mayor Megan Barry resigned) is one of the former, and Monday he signed an oversized document he called a “Declaration of Transportation Independence,” the Tennessean reports.

“What I think independence truly means for Nashville, for our city, is to find a way to untether ourselves from this mythology that freedom means being in a car,” Briley said, according to the paper. “It means everyone having all of the options on the table so they can move around safe and independently.”

Briley was speaking to a group of the plan’s supporters at Music City Hall, and the signing followed a conversation with former New York City DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. The “declaration” is essentially just that, according to the Tennessean, with no policy implications. It lists six “rights,” including the ability to choose whether to bike, walk, take public transit or drive and adds that the first step is to “invest in a transit network that serves everyone.”

Critics of the plan, which would include two half-cent sales tax hikes, a phased-in increase to the city’s hotel-motel tax, a 20 percent increase to the business and excise tax and a 20 percent surcharge on the local car rental tax, decried the document as a mere PR stunt.

As Next City has covered, the plan’s wildly ambitious goals include 26 miles of light-rail rapid transit and a subway tunnel under downtown. It also calls for BRT routes, transit centers and upgrades to existing bus service.

In 2016, many residents reacted to an initial blueprint with skepticism. Regional Transit Authority CEO Steven Bland told the Tennessean at the time that most public comments could be sorted under several headlines. One was: “Six billion dollars? Are you out of your flippin’ mind?”

But as Josh Cohen wrote for Next City last year, the region’s population is booming.

“Between new residents moving in and babies being born, the metro area gained about 100 people a day last year — putting Nashville in the top 20 fastest-growing U.S. cities,” he wrote. “As is always the case in car-centric cities, that growth is putting a serious strain on Nashville’s formerly free-flowing streets.”

“Five years ago, people would say Nashville was a 20-minute town,” Erin Hafkenschiel, director of transportation and sustainability in the mayor’s office, told Cohen. “Everything was within a 20-minute drive. That’s no longer the case.”

Early voting on the transit referendum begins April 11, the Tennessean reports. The election is May 1.

 

Gov. Cuomo’s $250 Million Plan to Fix Up NYCHA

NYCHA properties on the Lower East Side (Photo by Alan Chin)

Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would declare a state of emergency for the New York City Housing Authority. The idea was to expedite repairs at the city’s properties, which suffer from an infamous maintenance backlog, but details as to what the declaration would mean were scarce.

Bolstered by a Design/Build Authorization folded into the state’s FY 2019 budget, however, Cuomo on Monday released his plan. It includes $250 million in emergency state resources, and a directive for the mayor, city council speaker and president of the NYCHA Citywide Council of Presidents to select an independent manager to oversee repairs. It also suspends a number of NYCHA laws around procurement.

“At its inception, NYCHA addressed a dire public housing crisis by offering shelter and stability to New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs, but years of mismanagement and neglect have left NYCHA residents with some of the worst living conditions I have ever witnessed,” Cuomo said in a statement. “After seeing how these families are forced to live their lives every single day, I made a pledge to the people of New York that I would not sign the budget unless funding was dedicated to address the human tragedy that is NYCHA housing.”

The executive order is “the latest salvo in an escalating conflict between the governor and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration over the management of the beleaguered housing authority,” according to the New York Times. De Blasio has suggested that the governor is simply trying “to score political points” with his attention to NYCHA, and was absent when Cuomo made his announcement Monday.

But though the city and state have historically passed the blame over NYCHA mismanagement back and forth, the lack of federal funding plays a big role in the properties’ backlog.

“Since 2000, federal funding for public housing operations has met the annual need only three times, while funding for repairs has been cut by 53 percent, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities,” Oscar Perry Abello wrote for Next City last year.

 

NYC Uber Rides Will Soon Get More Expensive

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

In a move widely regarded as the first step toward congestion pricing, the New York state legislature last weekend agreed to tax rides on Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services south of 96th Street in Manhattan.

The tax, which will also apply to taxis ($2.50 vs. $2.75 for the ride-hailing companies), was included in the state’s $168.3 billion budget that passed Saturday, the Associated Press reports. The fees are projected to raise about $415 million annually, which will go toward much-needed subway repairs.

Both Uber and Lyft support the surcharge, provided it is, in fact, a step toward broader congestion pricing, Engadgnet reports.

“Congestion will not be fully addressed until the Governor and Legislature enact a comprehensive plan that also addresses all commercial vehicles and the real issue driving congestion: personal vehicles,” a Lyft spokesperson told the news site.

Not everyone agrees.

“It’ll hurt our business,” taxi driver David Heller recently told NY1. “People won’t want to pay more money, and that’s what’s going to happen. There’s 130,000 Ubers, ok? They created the congestion, ok? Get rid of them.”

A smaller tax of 75 cents will also apply to shared-ride operators like Via and uberPOOL. Via voiced concerns to NY1 recently as well, pointing out that if a car contains four riders, that vehicle will be taxed $3.

“A tax that encourages driving or riding alone while imposing a higher fee on efficient pooled vehicles shared by multiple passengers clearly does not represent a win for anyone who cares about congestion in NYC,” a spokesperson told the station.

Congestion pricing in New York has been talked about — but not enacted — for years, either dying in the legislature or winning only partial approval. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo recently took another stab at the elusive policy with a blueprint containing three suggested phases.

As Aline Reynolds wrote for Next City last month:

Phase One would focus on improving transit service and connectivity in Manhattan and around the city, and would require the NYPD to step up enforcement of the city’s existing traffic laws. The second phase would introduce a surcharge to taxi and for-hire vehicular trips in Manhattan’s central business district, once, over the course of 10 months, the appropriate GPS technology is installed in cars. Phase three would establish a zone-based pricing program — first for trucks, then for all vehicles, that travel through Manhattan below 60th Street. The report predicts that the fee system could potentially generate between 1 billion and 2 billion dollars annually.

Transit advocates are hopeful about the plan, because it originated with the governor’s office. Previous (unsuccessful) proposals have risen to the state from New York City Hall.

“It’s a strong proposal,” John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, recently told Next City, stressing that all three phases would need to be carried out in full for the plan to work. “Any credible solution to the crisis in transit service will require modernization of some very outdated equipment — and there is no serious way to do that on the cheap … It’s going to take billions of dollars.”

New York is not the first to tax ride-hailing companies, with the fees intended for public transit. Last year, Chicago City Council approved a 15 cent increase to the fee already tacked on to every trip to fund its city-run transportation networks.

 

Boston HQ2 Bid Puts Spotlight Back on Long-Delayed Transit Project

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Boston’s elusive Red-Blue connector — which would synch up the MBTA’s only two disconnected lines — has been discussed, and at several points, planned for, since the 1970s. But the state effectively dropped the notion in 2013, when the federal government gave it permission to break an agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation, according to Boston.com.

Amazon, however, might help to bring it back. The Boston Globe reports:

After the online retailer initiated its search for a second North American headquarters, Boston mentioned the idea of connecting the two subway lines as part of its pitch for Suffolk Downs in East Boston …

The bid said the Red-Blue connector was a “clear goal” of the state government. That was, at best, a charitable read of the situation, but it looks slightly more accurate now.

Suffolk Downs is reportedly slated for redevelopment, and its developer believes the project would benefit from an easier connection to the Red Line, according to the paper. So whether or not Amazon chooses Boston as the site of HQ2, the MBTA has announced a $50,000 study to look at the feasibility of a synch-up. The study will look at whether ridership potential has changed over the last several years, and update construction options since the last time a study was performed.

The connector was originally part of a list of projects the state committed to in a legal agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation — the idea being that it would mitigate against traffic created by the Big Dig, according to Boston.com. In 2006, however, it got legal permission to scale back its commitment, and simply create a design. The design was never finished, and in 2013, the state received permission to ditch the project wholesale.

Boston is one of 20 cities on Amazon’s short list for its HQ2. As Next City has covered at length, the bidding war between cities has led to some wild antics and shady promises of corporate subsidies.

 

Prague Rethinks Cyclists’ Place in Downtown Mix

Prague's Old Town Square is among the historic regions where cyclists will soon be banned. (Credit: Joolz)

As officials in other European cities announce plans for car-free city centers, Prague’s leaders have decided to ban bikes from the urban core.

Cyclists will be forbidden from entering many of the city’s most famous historic districts between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. starting May 1, the Guardian reports. Parts of those districts are “pedestrian-only,” but cars are often still permitted — even on some streets supposedly designated solely for walkers. The Prague 1 municipality argues that bikes are a hazard to tourists.

“We are not against cyclists, but the problem is space,” Oldřich Lomecký, the Prague 1 mayor, recently told the paper. “In a pedestrian zone, the advantage should be for pedestrians, not cyclists.”

The bike ban started as a Segway ban — in 2016, officials forbade the scooters from entering certain historic zones, claiming that they clogged streets and endangered pedestrians. Motorized bikes then became popular among tourists, and councilors wanted to ban those. After concluding that police couldn’t tell the difference between regular and motorized bikes, they opted to make the districts completely bike-free.

“It’s a very stupid decision that will cut off central Prague from the infrastructure that’s been provided for cyclists elsewhere in the city,” Jan Cizinsky, mayor of the Prague 7 area known for its cycling paths, told the Guardian. “If they want to create more space for pedestrians, it would be better to reduce the size of open-air pavement restaurants.”

Bike advocates are likewise incensed, claiming that a ban on cars in the pedestrianized zones would be smarter.

“Data shows there were 21 pedestrians hit by cars over the past 10 years, and only three involved in accidents with bicycles,” Vratislav Filler, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Auto*Mat, told the paper, adding that the decision “means cyclists are going to be forced on to streets that are dangerous because they have heavy car traffic and busy tram lines.”

Madrid, Cape Town and Paris are among the growing list of cities that have recently moved to make portions of their cities either completely car-free, or available only to zero-emission vehicles, in a bid to reduce emissions.

 

Amazon Tax Investigation Highlights How Cities Lose Out

(Credit: ITEP)

Last year, Amazon began collecting state-level sales tax on its direct sales. But it’s still not collecting city taxes in a number of states — while taking advantage of city services like roads and police forces — according to a new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

The e-commerce giant, which has been criticized for paying little in federal income taxes and asking cities to incentivize its HQ2, is either collecting a lower amount or not collecting local tax at all in seven of the 37 states with local-level sales taxes, the report from the left-leaning think tank states. Amazon charges less tax than local retailers in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Birmingham, among other cities in the seven states, which include Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. The gap between what Amazon collects and what local retailers collect “can be as high as 7.5 percent of an item’s pre-tax purchase price (in Homer, Alaska), but it is more commonly in the range of 1 to 3 percentage points,” the report states.

“This collection gap is harming local governments’ ability to fund vital programs, and it is contributing to an unlevel playing field for local businesses because millions of shoppers are able to pay less tax if they choose to buy products from out-of-state companies over the Internet rather than at local stores,” according to ITEP.

The gap can’t be blamed solely on Amazon — and is often the fault of state legislation, the report points out. In a recent article on the research, the New York Times detailed several of those laws.

(Credit: ITEP)

“Sales tax rules based on the location of the seller may be impossible to enforce if the company has no physical presence in that jurisdiction,” according to the paper. “And smaller online retailers can escape collecting sales taxes in more places than Amazon does — even when they use Amazon to sell their products.”

What’s more, a “hodgepodge of state laws” govern tax collection, according to the paper, so there’s no one simple solution for municipalities that are being undercut. The report offers several suggestions for cities left out under state law, including “destination-sourcing,” where the location of the buyer (rather than the seller) determines the tax amount collected, and the implementation of local “use taxes” at the state level to apply to interstate sales.

According to the Times, Albuquerque relies on sales tax for about two-thirds of its general fund revenue, which added up to about $500 million last year. The city has estimated that it lost roughly $5 million in tax revenue on Amazon purchases in 2016.

“The loser in that arrangement is cities,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told the paper. “Cities are really being left to themselves.”

 

Atlanta Gets an Ambitious New Transit Plan

(Photo by dbking)

A bill that could expand transit and unify the county-by-county patchwork that makes up Atlanta’s transportation grid passed the General Assembly last week.

HB 930, the so-called “transit expansion bill,” now awaits a signature from Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, who has endorsed the measure according to the AJC.

The final version of the bill allows the 13 counties around Atlanta to impose sales taxes of up to 1 percent for mass transit. Fulton County (where 90 percent of the city is located) already has a .75 percent tax for road and bridge construction and a 1 percent MARTA tax, so it would be limited to a smaller increase of .2 percent. The legislation also creates a regional board — which would have the final say over which project lists counties submit to voters — to oversee transit funding and construction. Finally, it allows Gwinnett County to hold another vote on joining MARTA this year (although the county has twice rejected proposals to join) and authorizes a special transit district in Cobb County to ask voters for approval of a transit expansion.

The state plans to add $100 million in bonds for transit expansion under a 2019 budget that already passed the General Assembly, the AJC reports. Those funds, combined with the bill’s allotted taxes, could “spark the biggest transit expansion in metro Atlanta since MARTA finished its existing passenger rail system in 2000,” according to the paper.

Curbed points out, however, that the bill simply allows — but doesn’t mandate — each county to impose taxes or join up with systems like MARTA.

It “provides flexibility and autonomy for member counties, who must ‘opt in’ to any specific project or funding mechanism,” a release from the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) states.

As Next City has covered, the (historically whiter and wealthier) suburbs around Atlanta have long resisted joining transit systems like MARTA. In 1987, the New York Times reported that bumper stickers often seen on suburban Cobb County cars declared “Share Atlanta Crime — Support MARTA.”

In 2014, however, residents of Clayton County voted to tax themselves to join the regional transit agency. And as traffic worsens, voters in Gwinnett County have warmed to alternative transportation as well, according to the AJC.

“Traffic congestion doesn’t stop at the city or county line. It’s a regional problem that requires a regional solution,” Rep. Kevin Tanner, House sponsor of the Bill, said in a statement. “Improving regional transit is also important for economic development, as many businesses are choosing to locate in places served by public transit.”

 

Seattle Baseball Fans Get Free Light-Rail Rides

(Photo by SounderBruce via Flickr)

As stadiums and public transit operators squabble over the cost of keeping trains running late, a new partnership in Seattle shows that the two can — sometimes — play nice.

Beginning this week, Mariners fans will be able to start showing their game tickets and receiving free rides to Safeco Field on Sound Transit’s light rail, the Seattle Times reports. The arrangement is meant to encourage transit ridership (and decrease downtown traffic and parking) while boosting game attendance. It’s modeled on a similar program in Phoenix, in which participating venues pay transit operators a set amount, and then ticket-holding attendees can ride free on the day of their event.

“It brought thousands of new passengers onto their system — passengers who then, having discovered the convenience of light rail, stayed with the system,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said, according to the Times. “We expect the exact same thing to happen here.”

Critically, the Mariners will reimburse Sound Transit. That’s notable because of controversies that have erupted over the last year between the 49ers and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in the Bay Area, and the Washington Nationals and D.C. Metro, over who should pay for late-night service, with both parties refusing to pick up the tab.

Of course, offering special services to game-day riders can also be controversial. When Metro Transit in Minneapolis announced that it had reserved light-rail service along several lines for Super Bowl attendees, regular commuters pushed back.

“It’s creating two tiers of people: Those who can afford expensive Super Bowl tickets, and those who cannot,” St. Paul resident and Metro rider Nate Hood told TwinCities.com last year.

In Seattle, the Mariners have also arranged for fans who take Uber to or from certain light-rail stations on game days to have $3.50 shaved off their fare. Unlike the Phoenix program, Seattle’s pilot will not cover rides on Metro buses. Both discounts — for the ride-hailing services and light-rail rides — run through June 3.

 



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