Judging by the likes of Apple, Google, and Chez Panisse – to say nothing of the relative stability of housing prices -- the San Francisco Bay Area might not seem like the most likely recipient of an economic planning grant. But the federal Department of Housing and Community Development thinks otherwise.

Following a hotly competitive application process, HUD awarded the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, in partnership with the Association of Bay Area Governments, one of 22 Sustainable Communities Grants in late November. MTC's award of $4,991,336 is, by less than $10,000, the second-largest such grant that HUD awarded nationwide; the 22 grants totaled nearly $96 million. MTC will focus on a "prosperity plan" for the region.


According to a statement supplied by HUD's San Francisco office, MTC received the grant because its "plan incorporates a broad region made of numerous communities with a real need to connect housing to jobs, provide transportation options for families, and generate the economic growth they need to win the future." HUD also cited the plan's ability to create middle-income jobs.


The Sustainable Communities grants are the brainchild of the Obama Administration -- designed to help communities and regions improve their economic competitiveness while also connecting housing with jobs, schools and transportation. On that count, say Bay Area planners, the region needs all the help it can get.


"The Bay Area has the same number of jobs in 2010 as it did in 1990 and we are the second-most expensive region in the country," said Doug Johnson, senior transportation planner with MTC. "We're seeing potentially astronomical costs for our low-income residents."


Those costs have risen, say some, because the benefits of the boom in Silicon Valley and in certain urban centers, such as the City of San Francisco, have not necessarily extended to the region as a whole. And there is no formal mechanism to ensure that all parts of the region share equally in its success.


"We lack any sort of comprehensive regional economic development strategy," said Jeremy Madsen, Executive Director of the Greenbelt Alliance, one of several nonprofit organizations that is partnering with MTC and ABAG on the grant. "That has kind of taken care of itself, which is both a blessing and a curse.  We have not thought comprehensively about where jobs should be going." 


MTC and ABAG's approach to its Sustainable Communities Grant is to interpret "sustainability" in the broadest sense to include not only the widely ecological benefits of, for instance, compact, transit-oriented development, but also the benefits of promoting economic development in concert with land use and transportation planning. The grant recipients say that this sort of planning is crucial in a region that is expected to grow by two million people by 2040.


MTC and ABAG will use the funding, to be spent over three years, to develop and implement a Regional Prosperity Plan in conjunction with local partners. The two major, interconnected areas of work are what the agencies describe as "a community-rooted process" to develop and implement a regional Economic Opportunity Strategy to expand economic opportunities for low- and moderate-income residents; and the implementation of a Housing the Workforce strategy that would create and preserve housing affordable to low-income workers.


"This plan is about implementing a long-term vision for a region to be more environmentally, economically, and socially stable and prosperous," said Johnson.


These programs encompass pilot projects spread among 30 participating Bay Area jurisdictions and nonprofit partners. The pilot projects include workforce training or job placement program for low- and moderate-income workers in a particular industry of opportunity; the development of small business clusters in new industries; and creation of a database that would match up low-income residents with affordable transportation and housing options.


To curb housing costs, Bay Area Planners will be using the grant money to implement housing that is not only affordable for low-income residents but is also in close proximity to job centers – thus reducing housing costs without imposing onerous transportation costs on those residents who can least afford them and without perpetuating what many planners consider inefficient growth patterns.


"It's…intending to make a better economy by moving away from the old model of ‘live where you want and drive an hour to work,'" said Kevin Riley, director of Planning & Inspection for the City of Santa Clara.


One of the great frustrations about land use planning—especially long-range regional planning exercises, such as the Sustainable Communities Strategies that are under consideration in the state's major metro areas—is that planners must abide by population projections and activity patterns over which they have no control. Indeed, the use of land is, in many ways, predicated on the economic conditions that compel people to live and work in certain places.


"This particular economic development strategy is really looking at how do we associate jobs and transit better," said Jeremy Madsen, executive director of environmental group Greenbelt Alliance. "How do we get beyond the old-style auto-oriented business park and into something that is a little more sustainable and meeting the new paradigms around planning."


Allen Fernandez Smith, executive director of housing advocacy group Urban Habitat, said that the grant participants will try to answer a number of questions in the course of implementing the pilot projects:


"Where do we need to build new housing stock? How can we have an early warning system where there are cities that are losing their affordable housing and turning over to market-rate, thus displacing people? What are anti-displacement strategies that cities and counties can take on?" said Smith.


Smith emphasized that the answers to each of these questions must be grounded in concern for social equity, "insuring that there is inclusion and access for all people throughout the region, especially those that are most marginalized or that have been left historically behind by policies that have been crafted to keep people out."


For many, the displacement of low-income residents is one of the unfortunate components of a regional economy that is skewed towards high-income jobs and towards younger residents who are willing to pay a premium for urban living. 


The notion of a region-wide effort to coordinate housing and transportation may sound familiar, since it is nearly identical to the mission of the Sustainable Communities Strategies mandated by Senate Bill 375. But whereas that law compels the state's metro regions to coordinate land use and transportation planning for the sake of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the HUD grant does so for the purpose of economic vitality and social equity.


‘"Housing the Workforce' is about making sure we are setting up affordable housing so that this workforce that we're trying to cultivate…throughout the Bay have places to live that were close to work and close to transit," said Smith. 


Planners hope that the work funded by the HUD grant will offer models for the realization of the Bay Area's SCS. Johnson noted that the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which determines how many units of housing the SCS must take into account, is primarily a "technical exercise." The RHNA does not, however, tell jurisdictions where housing should be developed and how housing should relate to transportation networks. That is, say planners, where the HUD Sustainable Communities grant will complement the SB 375-mandated SCS.


"We've always had the RHNA allocation, but it's not really been a comprehensive regional strategy for how we achieve our housing goals and housing needs," said Madsen. "With the Regional Transportation Plan process and SCS process we have a lot to deal with the general land use and transportation component of good regional planning, and this grant brings in more of the specific housing and economic development piece."


While the notion of marrying land use planning with economic development may sound like a powerful notion, some are concerned that this approach may be too ambitious.


"The challenge is simply that you have a lot of pieces moving at the same time," said Riley, of Santa Clara. "It's a good thing but it takes a lot of time."


Nevertheless, Riley said that the grant, plus the SCS planning process, represents a step in the right direction for a region that was, not long ago, considered fragmented.


"It means we are all becoming more regionally adept," said Riley. I would say up until the last decade it has been very parochial, that cities care only about what happens inside their borders."




Doug Johnson, Senior Transportation Planner, Metropolitan Transportation Commission, 510.817.5846

Jeremy Madsen, Executive Director, Greenbelt Alliance, 415.543.6771

Kevin Riley, Director of Planning & Inspection, City of Santa Clara, 408.615.2450

Allen Fernandez Smith, Executive Director, Urban Habitat, 510.839.9510