Ambitious but achievable: updated guidelines promise a better Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program

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Meeting California’s goal of reducing petroleum use by 50% by 2030 is ambitious – but achievable.

It’s ambitious because it will require us to overcome decades of planning and investment that have created sprawling, car-dependent, fossil-fueled cities. 

But it’s achievable because of efforts like the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities (AHSC) Program, which is helping shift our state toward healthy, affordable communities with more transportation choices for people of all incomes and abilities. 

With the recent release of its new set of draft guidelines, the AHSC is on track to spur long-term transformational changes in communities throughout the state that will reduce greenhouse gases and lead to a healthier and more prosperous future.

The first round of awards from the AHSC funded $121.9 million in solid projects that integrated housing, public transportation, walking and biking, energy efficiency, and green space. By and large, however, the initial projects weren’t as transformational as they could be. That’s not surprising for a first-year program; building a successful program that’s as innovative and complex as the AHSC takes time. 

That’s why we were so excited when the Strategic Growth Council (the agency that administers the AHSC) proposed new guidelines that set the stage for significantly more innovative and integrated projects in the program’s second year, when around $400 million will be awarded. 

More connected, innovative, and integrated projects

The updated guidelines will incentivize projects that more effectively reduce greenhouse gases and improve economic conditions, public health, and people's quality of life. The new draft guidelines provide significantly more credit in the scoring system for projects that enhance affordability and incorporate walking and biking, energy efficiency and solar, and community greening. An ideal AHSC project maximizes emission reductions and community benefits by including all or most of these elements. 

To fully understand how these new AHSC guidelines will result in better projects, consider how they deal with walking and biking infrastructure, also known as active transportation. In the first round of the AHSC Program, most projects included active transportation amenities – for example, on-site bike parking at a housing development. In the second round, all housing developments will now be required to include bike parking.

What's more, the evaluation system will give more weight to active transportation and therefore will incentivize projects that go even further, like including bike lanes and other traffic-reduction strategies to enhance people’s ability to safely get to transit and other key destinations.   

All of these innovations will help residents rely less on their cars by making it safer to walk, bike, or ride public transportation. The result: reduced greenhouse gas emissions, savings for families, and healthier, more active communities. 

There will also be incentives for projects to be more energy-efficient which will lower people’s costs of housing and transportation. While there are still improvements to be made to the guidelines in all of these areas, the SGC should be applauded for their progress.

Keeping our state affordable to keep it sustainable

Promoting low-carbon, healthier, and more connected communities can bring unintended consequences – namely, displacement and gentrification. As neighborhoods become more connected by transportation, they also tend to become more attractive and expensive places to live. 

One of the core tenets of the AHSC is that long-term affordability is necessary to maximize greenhouse gas reductions and provide access to opportunity for all Californians, especially for low-income and disadvantaged households. 

A growing body of research is confirming that middle- and low-income households own significantly fewer cars and ride transit at much higher rates than those with higher incomes. Wealthy people are likely to continue driving even if they live near a bus or train station; middle- and low-income people are more likely to take transit instead, or not even own a car at all. These households are poised to most effectively help reduce our state’s greenhouse gas emissions, while also saving money and staying connected to jobs, school, healthcare, and more via public transportation.

As a result, it is imperative that we make sure communities with good public transportation remain affordable to middle- and low-income households over the long term. The proposed changes to the guidelines provide enhanced protection against displacement and gentrification by providing additional points for projects located in jurisdictions with strong anti-displacement policies. This will spur communities to adopt these policies to compete for AHSC funds effectively maximizing emissions reductions and promoting affordable, inclusive neighborhoods.

What’s left to do?

While the AHSC is on track to help our communities reduce their emissions, become healthier, and be affordable to people of all incomes, there is much more work to be done in the weeks, months, and years ahead. 

In order to meet our goals of reducing petroleum use by 50% by 2030, and our longer-term goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050, the AHSC must do what it can to bring these projects to every region of California. 

The AHSC is currently a statewide competitive program with no geographic priorities. However, some regions in California have more resources available to invest in climate-friendly land use and transportation solutions, while other regions aren’t as far along in making changes to reduce emissions. While the AHSC does include a new category to ensure that rural areas throughout the state are guaranteed at least 10% of the overall available funding, this alone doesn’t address this disparity.

The Strategic Growth Council is currently considering options for making sure that funding is distributed equitably to avoid a geographic imbalance of funding for emissions reduction. The AHSC should include a goal to invest significant funding in key regions with greater untapped potential to reduce emissions, to make the most of these investments. TransForm and our partners in the Sustainable Communities for All Coalition support an approach that sets regional funding goals while preserving competition to ensure that the best and most innovative projects are funded in places that need it most. This will ensure that all parts of the state will reap meaningful benefits from this program, from urban places like Los Angeles and San Francisco to rural places like Imperial County and the North Coast.

Into the future

In future years, we see the AHSC acting as a catalyst for leveraging policies that promote sustainability and redirect funding that currently often works against our climate goals. 

In some ways this is already happening. In their proposed set of guidelines, the SGC has laid out changes that will reduce the amount of funding for unnecessary parking (and plans to eventually phase out funding for parking altogether). They recognize that excessive parking reinforces automobile dependency, leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions, and increases the cost of housing. To effectively compete for funding in the future, successful applicants will be encouraged to reduce parking and put forth projects that provide more transportation choices. This competitive atmosphere directly contributed to support for the passage of AB 744, which eliminates parking minimums in transit priority areas. This is the type of positive policy change that the AHSC can catalyze.

But in the big picture, we still have a long way to go.

The amount of funding available to the AHSC is expected to grow from $400 million to as much as $800 million by 2019 (and potentially much more beyond). While that is no small amount of money, it is still dwarfed by more traditional federal, state, and local funding that has historically been (and continues to be) invested in sprawl, communities centered around cars, and an unhealthy reliance on fossil fuels. 

This is best illustrated by the Legislature’s Special Session on transportation that currently aims to identify funding to fix our aging and crumbling roads. Although transportation is the state’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, state leaders have almost completely failed to make a connection between transportation funding and emissions reduction in the special session. As a result, there is a very real possibility that the special session could lead to billions of dollars in new funding annually that would be invested in ways that undermine our climate goals. 

So we look forward to working with the SGC to ensure that the AHSC and other cap-and-trade funding programs incentivize and leverage the larger world of transportation funding to be put to work meeting our climate goals, not working against them.

In the meantime, the SGC is holding workshops this week and taking comments through the end of October to strengthen these already much-improved guidelines. To learn more about how you can support a more innovative AHSC program, please contact Ryan Wiggins.

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.