“Transit Oriented Communities” (or “TOC”) is a phrase we hear a lot these days, especially in discussions of individual new construction projects in our area, many of which are now being developed under the very specific set of Transit Oriented Communities guidelines established by the City of Los Angeles.
But what exactly are TOC projects and guidelines, where did they come from, and how are they re-shaping our neighborhoods?
All these questions and more were tackled at a June 23 Town Hall meeting sponsored by the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, with input from members of the the GWNC Land Use Committee, representatives from the Department of City Planning, a representative from pro-TOC housing group Abundant Housing LA, a former City Planner who is critical of many aspects of the TOC program, and several others.
Introducing the gathering on Zoom, GWNC Land Use Committee chair Philip Farha noted that in our current time and place, “few things are more divisive than land use,” and while half of our neighbors think our built landscape is changing too fast, he said, the other half think it’s not changing fast enough. At the same time, though, Farha said we all really want the same thing – affordable housing for everyone – but differ on how to get there. And Transit Oriented Communities seem to be at the center of many of these equitable housing discussions at the moment.
What are Transit Oriented Communities and where did they come from?
Very generally, the Transit Oriented Communities development program was created as a response to Los Angeles’ current housing – and housing affordability – crisis, which affects people at every income level, but particularly those making less than the area’s Average Median Income (AMI – a term we’ll return to later).
According to data presented by City Planner Cally Hardy at the GWNC Town Hall, LA is the most unaffordable metro area in the United States, has the fewest homes per adult, and has the highest rates of overcrowding. As a result, she reported, the Southern California Association of Governments has determined that the city needs 456,000 new homes to address current supply issues.
Against this backdrop, Hardy explained, and in an effort to encourage construction of more new housing, voters passed Measure JJJ in 2016, which directed the city to, among other things, develop a new set of guidelines offering developers certain incentives for creating new housing near transit, in the form of construction bonuses if they include certain numbers of officially “affordable” units in their projects. (We’ll also get back to the definition of “affordable” in a minute.)
Both the construction bonuses and required percentages of affordable units would be determined by geographic locations at varying distances from key transit locations.
The outcome of Measure JJJ’s directive was the new set of Transit Oriented Communities guidelines, developed by the Department of City Planning and other city agencies, and adopted by the city in 2018. The TOC Guidelines divide areas within half a mile of key transit stops into four official “tiers,” offering developers various kinds and levels of construction bonuses (density, floor area ratio, reduced parking requirements, etc.) in exchange for including certain percentages of officially affordable units in these locations. (And the greater the percentage of affordable units in the project, the greater and more numerous the bonuses or “incentives” for developers.)
How are TOC Tiers, Locations, and Incentives Determined?
The first key in determining locations for TOC developments is transit. As noted above, areas where TOC projects will be allowed are those within a half mile of a “major transit stop,” which the city defines as “any light-rail station or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) stop” OR “an intersection of two bus routes each with a service interval of 15 minutes or less.”
And the bigger the transit connection, the more frequently buses or trains stop there, and the closer to the stop that a construction site is located, the higher the Tier number. In other words, Tier 1 areas have the lowest transit frequency, are near the lowest capacity kinds of transit, and/or are the furthest from the nearest stops (while still being close enough to be eligible for some kind of TOC developments)…while Tier 4 areas are those closest to the nearest major transit stop, and/or closest to the most frequent, highest-capacity transit, as shown below.
According to Hardy, 23% of all city land lies within an area eligible for some level of TOC development, but basic proximity is NOT the only qualification, and even 44% of the lots within the TOC radiuses shown above are actually NOT eligible for TOC developments.
For example, in addition to the basic requirement of being located within half a mile of a high-quality transit stop, a lot must ALSO be zoned for more than 5 residential units, and must not be in an area with height limits, or special density or Floor Area Ratio limits, that would preclude larger buildings. (This means that any lot currently zoned for 1 or 2-unit residential construction would NOT qualify as a TOC development site, even if it lies within a TOC radius from a nearby transit stop — an important point for many of our local residential neighborhoods.)
Also, according to Hardy, 47% of all TOC tier areas are in places where the current zoning would allow some, but not all, of the TOC’s developer incentives…and only 9% would actually allow every incentive offered by the program.
How many TOC projects have been built so far…and how many affordable housing units have resulted?
According to Hardy, the Transit Oriented Communities Program has so far resulted in proposals for a total of 34,672 new housing units, 7,188 of which are reserved at some official level of “affordability.”
Most recently, in 2020, there were a total of 6,769 TOC units approved by the city, with 1,713 (or 25%) designated “affordable.”
What does all this mean for our local neighborhoods?
According to Jane Usher, a Windsor Square resident, GWNC Land Use Committee member, and co-organizer of the town hall session, the TOC program’s impact on our local area will be significant. It “will affect our entire neighborhood,” she said, presenting a map, assembled by event co-organizer Tommy Atlee, of TOC projects approved so far within the GWNC’s boundaries.
For a better illustration of how much of the GWNC area might be eligible for future TOC development projects, Usher pointed to a map of local TOC tier areas (below), available on the city’s Zone Information and Map Access System (ZIMAS). According to this visualization, most of the Greater Wilshire area (except for central Hancock Park, which is the furthest from any major public transit routes), lies within some sort of TOC tier, represented by the blue circles. (The shades of blue, from lightest to darkest, represent the various TOC tiers -Tier 1 is the lightest shade of blue and Tier 4 is darkest.)
At the same time, however, and as explained above, this does NOT mean that every lot within one of these tier areas is a potential site for a TOC development.
Nick Maricich, Principal City Planner with the Department of City Planning, reiterated that not all locations within the TOC radii are eligible for TOC developments, because there are also other qualifying factors.
For example, ONLY those parcels where the underlying zoning allows more than 5 units (including R3, C2 and other commercial and larger multi-family-zoned properties) are candidates for new TOC developments. R1 (single family) and R2 (duplex) lots – which are the majority in many of our local neighborhoods – are NOT eligible. So only those lots zoned for larger multifamily buildings – R3 zones and above – are eligible for TOC projects.
To make those qualifications clearer, the following map, also from ZIMAS, shows the underlying zoning in GWNC neighborhoods. Only the areas shown in pink or the darkest orange have multi-family zoning dense enough – R3 or higher – that they would qualify for TOC development. (Also note that the map does not easily distinguish, at this level, the difference between R2 and R3 lots, both of which are orange here. R2 lots are NOT eligible for TOC projects, under the current rules, while R3 lots ARE eligible, if they lie within one of the TOC radius areas above.) The yellow lots here are R1 single family lots, which are NOT eligible for TOC developments, even if they do lie within a TOC tier radius.
(Editor’s note: unfortunately, ZIMAS does not currently allow you to overlay these two maps (TOC radii and underlying zoning), or provide a TOC radius map with cutouts for parcels where the underlying zoning doesn’t allow more than 5 units…which would show much more specifically which individual lots are or are not eligible for TOC developments.)
Also, as City Planner Eric Claros noted in the Town Hall presentation, just because a property seems to be within one of the Tiers shown in the radius map doesn’t automatically qualify it for development. If a developer is interested in building a TOC project, the first step in their approval process is to file a TOC Tier Verification application with the city, to make sure the parcel they want to build on is officially eligible for the program, based on all qualifying factors. It is only after an official TOC Tier Verification is granted that a project can move forward in the application process.
How to find out about TOC projects coming to your area
In the past, when developers wanted to build something bigger than the current zoning allows, or request any other kind of special privilege for their project (e.g. additional height, narrower lot setbacks, etc.), they had to file a special “entitlement” application with the Department of City Planning, and go through a lengthy city and community review process, with several levels of public meetings and hearings. One goal of the TOC program, however, was to streamline the approval process for developers, so they could build projects faster and get their new units on the market faster. And that meant eliminating many aspects of the old public notice and review processes. So projects built under the TOC guidelines now require only administrative (or “ministerial”) approval by the city, without public review or hearings, which significantly reduces development timelines.
The Planning Department representatives at the town hall event explained that if a developer wants to build something that fits within the basic parameters of the TOC program, and takes advantage only of the basic incentives offered to all qualifying TOC projects in a given tier area, the project is automatically approved – with no public notification or review process, and no Planning Department case number to track. This means the developer can go right to the Department of Building and Safety to apply for a building permit. And this further means that the local community, and even adjacent neighbors, may not hear anything about the plans until the already-approved building permits and excavation notices are posted at the property and/or construction begins.
If a developer does want to take advantage of 2-3 additional construction bonuses (or “incentives”) from a specific menu offered by the TOC program, in exchange for increasing the number of affordable units they’re including in the building, the process is a bit different. In that case, developers do have to file an application with the Planning Department, and a notice of the application is sent to various city entities, including the local Neighborhood Council, which may choose to review the application at one of its public meetings. But while those reviews are still frequent (the GWNC Land Use Committee discusses many of them at its monthly meetings), developers now appear at these meetings mostly as a courtesy, and the city’s approval rests not on whether neighbors, a neighborhood council, or event a local city council office, supports a project…but only on whether or not the project meets a basic checklist of qualifications.
What is “Affordable” housing?
As noted above, for a project to qualify for any TOC incentives, it must include a certain percentage of “affordable” units. This means units reserved – for at least 55 years – for tenants who make a specific percentage of the area’s Average Median Income (AMI). There are three categories of qualifying income, based on those percentages: Extremely Low Income, Very Low Income, and Low Income. (Qualifying income tables for each level, for 2020, are shown here.)
Also, the specific percentage of affordable units that must be included in a TOC project is determined by both the TOC Tier and the income level the units will be reserved for. The lower the income level a unit is reserved for, the fewer units developers have to set aside. According to the TOC Guidelines:
Tier 1 – 8% of the total number of dwelling units shall be affordable to Extremely Low Income (ELI) income households, or 11% of the total number of dwelling units shall be affordable to Very Low (VLI) income households, or 20% of the total number of dwelling units shall be affordable to Lower Income (LI) households.
Tier 2 – 9% ELI, or 12% VLI or 21% LI.
Tier 3 – 10% ELI, or 14% VLI or 23% LI
Tier 4 – 11% ELI, or 15% VLI or 25% LI.
This means that, for example, in a 50 unit building in a Tier 3 area, 5 units would have to be reserved for ELI tenants, 7 units for VLI tenants, or 11 units for LI tenants. (And this explains why most TOC developments we’ve seen lately go with the ELI option, which requires the fewest number of non-market-rate units and allows developers to reserve the greatest possible number of units for market-rate tenants.)
Arguments in favor of the TOC program
As noted in the introductions to the evening’s presentations, there are many arguments both for and against the approaches the TOC program takes to building new housing, and the town hall session included remarks from both an advocate and a critic of the program.
Speaking first was Anthony Dedousis, representing Abundant Housing LA, a group that generally supports increasing housing supplies, at all price levels, as one of the best ways to confront the current housing crisis.
Dedousis reiterated Hardy’s information about the lack of both housing and affordability in Los Angeles, and noted that despite rising population numbers, housing construction has really slowed down in the last few years, making the crisis even worse.
But Dedousis said the TOC program has helped to reverse this trend. He cited the numbers of new units reported by the Planning Department representatives, above, and pointed out that in 2020, nearly half of all new affordable units built in the city were constructed under the TOC program, with Koreatown, Westlake and Palms seeing the greatest numbers of new TOC projects so far.
And Dedousis said that increasing the overall number of housing units in the city, as fast as possible, doesn’t just increase housing supply and lower rents, but has numerous other benefits:
In addition, he said, while many people have complained that too many older and “naturally” affordable buildings and units are being torn down to make way for new, majority-market-rate TOC projects, the opposite is actually true: the new TOC buildings are so much larger than those they tend to replace – with an average of 17 units built for every one demolished, and 2 lower income units built for every one demolished – they benefit all segments of the housing market.
Finally, Dedousis said, his group would like to see the TOC program go even further than it already does, by making even more locations eligible for TOC projects, not requiring any on-site parking at TOC projects (building parking spaces increases per-unit construction costs for developers, he said, because it reduces the number of units they can fit into each building), and increasing density, height, and other incentives for builders.
Criticisms of the TOC program
Meanwhile, retired city planner Dick Platkin criticized the TOC program on several levels.
First, he said, echoing the sentiments we’ve heard from many neighbors of new TOC buildings, the developments tend to be not just larger than the older buildings they often replace, but so much larger that they dominate and negatively affect the landscape in older neighborhoods with well-established and often historic architectural character.
Platkin also noted that while the numbers of TOC projects reported so far by both the city and Dedousis seem impressive, those numbers are for proposed projects, and not the number of units that have actually been built or received Certificates of Occupancy, which is significantly lower. Which means, he said, that the program isn’t really addressing the housing crisis as well as its proponents claim.
In fact, Platkin said, the city already has a lot of vacant market-rate apartments, so the issue isn’t really a shortage of housing overall as much as it is a shortage of affordable housing. And the TOC program, with its very low requirements for affordable units, doesn’t really help. Instead, he said, we should be looking more closely at poverty and the reasons people can’t afford the housing we do have.
Also, said Platkin, there are other problems with the current TOC guidelines, including the fact that the city council never officially adopted the program as an ordinance, as required by the city charter for any kind of zone changes. (And the TOC program’s allowed bonuses for increases in things like height, density, and floor area ratios, he said, are indeed de facto zone changes.) Also, he said, there are no official provisions for verifying and tracking the program’s promised low income units, which should absolutely be required if the major purpose of the program is to create and maintain more low income housing.
Platkin listed seven such troublesome issues with the TOC program, including:
Finally, Platkin noted that one local advocacy group, Fix the City, has filed a lawsuit based on several of these issues. The suit is still in its early stages, he said, but the first legal proceedings should take place this month.
To learn more about the Transit Oriented Communities program, you can view the full town hall discussion on the GWNC’s YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/ZvY8z_BBhsc.
Also, to learn more about specific TOC projects, Usher suggested attending as many of your local neighborhood council board and Land Use Committee meetings as possible, as well as City Planning Commission, City Council PLUM Committee, and full City Council hearings on specific projects whenever they appear. Usher said people can also make their voices heard at every step of the process by contacting their city council offices, and writing letters on specific projects to their City Councilmembers and the various city departments involved.
Going a bit further, Usher said it’s also possible to officially appeal city decisions on individual TOC projects, but only property owners and occupants actually adjacent to the development site are eligible to do so. Finally, lawsuits are another option, she said, but only if neighbors have already “exhausted all administrative remedies,” including contacting city officials, writing letters, and filing appeals if they are eligible.