If you support more housing and lower rents in Los Angeles, it’s hard not to be discouraged sometimes. Fierce opposition from NIMBYs and their favorite politicians in City Hall and Sacramento continues to stifle even incremental change. But amid these obstacles, there’s a bright spot in L.A. housing policy, and it’s three letters long: T-O-C.

I’m referring to the City of Los Angeles’ Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) program. TOC was created via Measure JJJ, a ballot initiative that ACT-LA, a local pro-transit advocacy organization, and organized labor spearheaded. Since its passage in 2016, the TOC program has emerged as a significant, if little-known, force in encouraging denser new housing near transit. TOC achieves this by rewriting the zoning rules for residential land near Metro. Essentially, if a proposed apartment building:

  • Is on a land parcel where multifamily apartment buildings are allowed
  • Is within a half-mile of a rail station or the intersection of two bus lines 
  • Sets aside 8-25% of apartments for low-income tenants (the percentage depends on the tenants’ level of income)

then the TOC rules allow it to be taller and include more units above and beyond the normal zoning limits. TOC buildings can have up to 35-80% extra units (depending on how the land is zoned), and aren’t required to provide as much off-street parking (or in some cases, none at all).  For more detail on TOC incentives, you can check out this excellent research report on Measure JJJ by LAPlus and the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley.

Together, these incentives are making more construction of larger apartment buildings near bus and rail happen. When homebuilders can build taller without being forced to provide as much garage space, the economics of apartment construction improve, stimulating more investment. And because many TOC projects don’t require special approval from the city (i.e. they are “by-right”), NIMBY groups aren’t able to bring political pressure to delay or block them. 

As a result, TOC’s impact is starting to show in the housing numbers. Between September 2017, when TOC was launched, and December 2018, about 12,300 apartments were proposed or permitted. Of that number, 19% (or 2,300 apartments) will be affordable to low-income renters. For comparison, 19,155 homes were permitted citywide during the same time period. 

Of course, 12,000 apartments are not enough to solve L.A.’s housing crisis; we need hundreds of thousands of new homes. And as of May 2019, none of these apartments have opened yet, since most projects take several years from proposal to completion. But 12,000 Metro-adjacent homes are a promising step in the right direction, and by encouraging more Angelenos to live near transit, they will provide additional benefits in reduced traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

If you’re interested in knowing where these projects are located, and how many new TOC homes are coming to your neighborhood, Abundant Housing’s TOC Map has all the information you need.

Some key facts:

  • Just over half of all TOC homes are on the Eastside, with particularly heavy concentrations in Koreatown (2,296 homes), Westlake (1,268), Hollywood (499), and East Hollywood (472).
  • About 30% of all TOC homes are on the Westside, especially in Palms (708 homes), Sawtelle (609), and West LA (553).
  • 42% of TOC homes are within a half-mile of rail, and Koreatown, Westlake, Hollywood, and Sawtelle have the most Metro-adjacent TOC units.
  • While most TOC buildings set aside 10-19% of units for low-income tenants, 30 buildings, mostly in East and South L.A., are nearly all-affordable. This seems to indicate that nonprofit builders of affordable housing are also benefiting from the TOC program incentives.
  • Buildings of all sizes are being constructed through TOC. The distribution of TOC apartments between 20-49 unit, 50-99 unit, and 100-199 unit buildings is fairly even.

Finally, you might wonder how many incremental housing units the TOC program has created so far. It isn’t quite right to say that in the absence of TOC, none of the 12,277 homes would have been built; some of these buildings would still have been proposed and permitted, but they would have had fewer units and might have been located further from transit. But some projects would not have been economically feasible without the TOC bonus density and/or incentives like reduced parking requirements. Certainly, there would have been many fewer affordable units, since there wouldn’t have been an incentive to set aside apartments for low-income renters.

My best guess is that the TOC program is responsible for an incremental 6,200 apartments, of which roughly 1,750 are affordable for lower-income tenants. Again, this is far from sufficient in a county with a deficit of over 500,000 affordable homes, and it’s worth asking how the TOC program can be improved to further stimulate dense, affordable housing construction near Metro. 

I’ll share some policy ideas in Part II of this article. Look out for it very soon!