Leveraging Public Assets for Public Benefit

Fall approaches and with it the annual conference scene. Once again I’ll be heading to Rail Volution  to talk transit and livable communities with clients and colleagues from around the globe. Each year I leave the conference energized by the innovation and passion I see and hear from those working on the front lines to ensure development and mobility options better realize their potential to transform cities. Over the last decade, Rail~Volution has increased its focus on equity with a specific focus on transit-oriented development projects that include affordable housing and engage the community in its design. This year – in addition to taking the conference across the border into British Columbia, the conference has also increased its equity focus with sessions on mobility justice, equitable fare policies, and anti-displacement strategies.

I’m excited to present and moderate a session on “Rethinking Transit Assets” Land for People and Public Benefit” the first morning of Rail~Volution. Joining me will be leaders from transit agencies in Seattle and Minneapolis-Saint Paul, and affordable housing advocates and funders from the San Francisco Bay Area. Increasing housing prices and rents have policy makers, advocates, developers and elected officials searching for strategies to maintain the quality of life many enjoy, increase equitable access to opportunities, and improve housing choices for those with limited incomes. The cost of producing affordable housing, especially in high-demand neighborhoods, is a particular challenge. As land values increase and affordable housing resources remain limited, we need to better leverage public land assets that could be used for housing. Surplus and vacant public lands are a precious public resource and should be inventoried and managed accordingly. Public entities can adopt policies to ensure that long-term “community value,” not simply market value, is reflected in prioritizing future development of land. 

Thanks to pioneering work by Enterprise Community Partners more places are looking at leveraging underused and surplus public lands to support affordable housing , day care centers, health clinics and other community-serving needs that can be hard to finance when land near transit becomes too expensive. Utilizing public lands for public benefit sounds like a simple solution to a challenging problem, however, as those involved in the process will quickly point out the process itself involves a unique set of hurdles. These can include insufficient information about the scale of available lands, limitations tied to the lands future use depending on how its acquisition was financed, and outdated disposition processes which may need to be adjusted to make it easier for affordable housing developers to compete for property when it becomes available.

 In its 2017 report, Enterprise identifies leading best practices and offers a set of recommendations to overcome challenges. Since it’s release public agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Metro Transit have each created searchable inventories of public lands near transit. The MTC is working to implement its 2018 Workforce Housing Action Plan that includes prioritizing housing construction on agency-owned land and streamlining parcel disposition and development. Housing advocates and local community leaders are working with MTC, BART and other regional and local governmental agencies to build upon this work and identify local funding resources to boost affordable housing production, revise local disposition and zoning codes, and streamline project approvals to accelerate housing production near transit.

What is public land? As defined by Enterprise Community Partners in “Public Benefit from Publicly Owned Parcels” (June 2017), public lands are “any site that is owned by a governmental or government-chartered entity. Such entities include (but are not limited to): units of state or local government, government departments (including housing and public works), transit agencies, school districts, and public institutions of higher learning. Publicly-owned parcels, often referred to as ‘public sites,’ ‘public land’ and ‘surplus land’ can include but are not limited to: vacant or underutilized parcels, parcels with existing community/public facilities with redevelopment potential, and/or land being purchased by a public agency for the development of community/public facilities,” including roads and transit corridors.

This work is inspiring others. Communities like those along the Purple Line, currently under construction in suburban Maryland, are analyzing the potential to utilize public lands for future redevelopment before land prices escalate further. And, advocates in Seattle and Chicago are pushing cities and county governments to revise policies to prioritize public lands for affordable housing.

Family Housing Fund toolkit is tailored to those working in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region, but model ordinances and summary of work being done around the country offers insights beyond Minnesota.  https://www.fhfund.org/building-on-what-we-have/

Family Housing Fund toolkit is tailored to those working in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region, but model ordinances and summary of work being done around the country offers insights beyond Minnesota. https://www.fhfund.org/building-on-what-we-have/

MZ Strategies worked with the Family Housing Fund in Minnesota to create a Public Lands toolkit for government staff and housing advocates. This includes an analysis of existing policies at the state, county and local levels in places like Washington, Florida, California and Illinois. We also created a model ordinance that can be adopted by local leaders to move from concept to practice.

Even in those regions without high-capacity transit, surplus public lands can be an important resource to support affordable housing or other public needs. Many units of local government – from schools to libraries to wastewater management and public works departments – have surplus lands. Often times, even those within government may not have a clear understanding of the scale, location or development potential these lands can provide. Many local governments today are trying to provide more services often with less funding. Public lands can be a source to bring in needed revenues through their sale or lease. However, public benefit may also be derived from prioritizing these lands for affordable housing or other community-serving needs that do not generate the level of revenue streams that allow them to compete with market-rate developers.

Creating an inventory of available lands, analyzing the inventory for its development and market potential, and revising policies to align with community goals are all steps that government staff and local elected leaders can take to ensure that these invaluable public resources facilitate the type of development that best serves the community. Leveraging public assets for public benefit requires partnership, and sometimes patience. But the rewards can be realized by residents for years to come.