Monday, January 30, 2017

Could we get some Transit Alternatives around the Ortega Highway Closure?

The state government should consider funding an emergency train/bus bridge via the 91 corridor to bypass gridlock.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

During the weekend of January 22, Mother Nature dumped so much rain into Southern California that it contributed to numerous potholes, mudslides and destroyed a section of the Ortega Highway. The two lane mountain road connects Lake Elsinore to San Juan Capistrano and has for decades served as a major link for commuters. Because of the storms, Highway 74 is shut down to through traffic with the damaged section just east of Gibby Road in Orange County.

While verified local traffic is permitted to enter while repairs are being done, the vast majority of rush hour traffic passes through via the Ortega Highway. With the mountain pass no longer a through routing option until who knows when (reports are saying, "weeks"), Caltrans has directed motorists to detour via the 91 Corona Crawl or Highway 76 from Oceanside. Although both of these routes are alternatives, they are far from being good ones simply because both are already congested commuter corridors.

Last Thursday's afternoon rush hour tells the truth. All I can say is that if you're commuting by car out of Orange County and back toward Lake Elsinore during peak congestion, good luck. The 91/55 corridor was backed up beyond the Irvine Business Complex through Corona. Even if one takes the 241 toll road, motorists are stopped just past Chapman Avenue. For the southern detour, the 76 was slow-and-go coming out of Oceanside with the I-15 north heavy from the 76 into Murrieta.

One way commute times can span in excess of 2.5 to 3 hours. I mean could you imagine spending 3 hours going in, working 8-10 hours, and another 3 headed home? Factor in another 8 for sleep and the 24 hour cycle has been fully consumed.

Chances are this pattern will continue until Caltrans repairs this section, which must happen soon but still must be done correctly to ensure the road is safe. That's likely why the reopening date is "weeks" away.

While that's happening, the state should provide emergency funding to our transit agencies to expand public transportation and public marketing outreach so that people can get to and from work without having to endure hours of gridlock or being forced to stay overnight in OC.

The detour via Highway 76 and I-15 though Temecula is a tough call for transit alternatives simply because there is zero high occupancy vehicle lane infrastructure in between Oceanside and Lake Elsinore. However, the 91 detour is a great candidate to expand transit. A train and/or bus bridge via the Metrolink IEOC Line from South Perris to Oceanside should be offered on top of a marketing campaign for the existing commuter services. In addition, more resources need to be set a aside for operations to handle the surge of new riders. That will allow commuters the option to use these public HOV's to bypass the stopped traffic either via the rails or the 91 Express Lanes.

If officials did that, that would at least thin out the congested conditions on our freeways to the point where commute times would be acceptable once more while we wait for Caltrans to finish the repair work needed for Ortega Highway.

Monday, January 16, 2017

More evidence Californians are overpaying for housing - Part VII

A state department report outlines a variation of the Smarter Smart Growth Law as recommended answers. Will state and local politicians finally adopt this proven solution for California's working families?

Too Expensive: Housing prices and rentals just north of the Irvine Business Complex are a disgrace to workers.
Source: Zillow

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Critical mass has been reached in Southern California's expensive housing issue, and that is an understatement.

Just take a look at the housing market a few miles north of the Irvine Business Complex area and the numbers provided by Zillow should speak for themselves. While the market is active in this area as shown on the map above, inventory shortage have led to morally illicit pricing for hardworking families.

I could never imagine growing up that regular single family tract housing just east of the 55 freeway in between Tustin and Orange can creep into the $1 million club with single family rentals going for over $2.5k to $3k per month. These are not luxury mansions; these are regular single family homes without the extra bells and whistles of clubhouses, gated streets, or community swimming pools. These are basic housing units within a 20 minute bus ride away from the Irvine Business Complex job hub via OCTA Route 71. It just goes to show that we are in a financial mess for something basic like shelter with reasonable commute times to-and-from work.

For the record, the home referenced on the map above in Tustin near the Tustin Avenue corridor listed for $105,000 is actually a 3 bedroom fixer condo. A 30-year mortgage for that would appear to be very friendly at $500 per month at zero down. However, the posted land-lease fee of $1,242 and the HOA at a whopping $360 is an additional $1,602 per month bringing the monthly house bill of this fixer-upper to $2.1k per month plus the repair costs to make the unit livable. Sorry folks...

It should be clear that homes in excess of $750,000 and single family rentals creeping toward $3,000 per month have led to an increase of transients and have forced the family provider into super-commuting if they want to purpose about 30% of their net income after taxes to housing.

The 91 freeway is a disgrace; the 91 Express Lanes extension slated to open in just a few months and additional Metrolink trains through Corona cannot come fast enough. The I-15 freeway corridor on the south side of the Inland Empire is another example. That links the Southwest region into San Diego County and has become the new 91 Corona Crawl with morning rush hour traffic starting at 5 am and afternoon congestion through Temecula sometimes backing up 15 miles into the rural Pala Mesa area. Temecula surface streets suffer with through-commuter traffic as housing have now become expensive there. Thankfully a local infill growth master plan is in the works just west of the I-15 freeway in Temecula but major I-15 freeway improvements and high occupancy vehicle and rail transit infrastructure are decades away.

The state government has at least finally acknowledged the source of this problem and the local press has been covering it. Last week, the state's Housing and Community Development department released the report "California's Housing Future: Challenges and Opportunities." The Press Enterprise and OC Register spread the news and opined in an editorial that every politician and decision-making official should read.

The report provides yet even more evidence that the cost of living has gotten out of control. The stats and hard supporting evidence there are overwhelming. I could double the size of this now 7-part blog post series and spend several months just talking about it.

For starters, the report cites home ownership slipping to 53.7% in the state, 10 points below the national average in 2014 and lowest of all states except New York and Nevada. New York's housing situation is driven primarily by a similar inventory shortage in New York City. That means that almost half of the hardworking families in California are at the mercy of land owners and rental hikes. This is a disgraceful stat, and this must change.

Affordable: Workers in Las Vegas have plenty of market choices for shelter.
Source: Zillow
Nevada's placement on the list is interesting as this shot of Zillow just west of Las Vegas speaks otherwise. Housing is affordable in the low land. It's possible that the foreclosure crisis and resulting negative credit scores could be contributing factors in the Silver State as Vegas was hit hard last decade. However the resort casinos and other industries continue drive the market economy there. I hypothesize that incentives to rebuild buyer credit may be needed in Nevada.

In addition, we have more hard data that while the population in Southern California has shot up, home development has actually been in a deficit of about 100,000 units per year. That should be direct proof that a supply shortage is leading this entire issue and that we need game-changing solutions to entice developers to expand infill housing all over the region.

The HCD report spotlights the Smarter Smart Growth Law as the answer: Reform development regulations and reduce the government red tape and stumbling blocks to increase infill housing supply. This has to happen at both the state and local level. Essential rules like earthquake resistant structures, fire codes, and street access need to be maintained. But unnecessary issues like CEQA abuse on infill development must be reformed.

The buck stops with the governments reforming such regulations to get to the bottom of this crisis. Whoever takes the lead on this campaign will be a hero for California's working families.

Monday, January 9, 2017

More evidence Californians are overpaying for housing - Part VI

ABC 7's Vista LA brings the community gentrification issue of expensive homes into the media spotlight.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Southland residents who were watching TV Saturday night and tuned into Chanel 7 got another taste of what overpriced housing can do to existing communities: Gentrification.

Gentrification was defined on the Vista LA show and the dictionary as the displacement of poorer residents as the affluent and middle class take over. However, from what I observed in this entire story of the expensive housing crisis, it's actually the working middle class that often gets displaced out of town while the poor are displaced into cramped living conditions or on the street. In fact, there have been cases where entire cultures have been driven out.

Irvine is one example. Through the 70's and 80's this affluent city housed LA's office workers who commuted daily via the I-5 and the Marines and their staff stationed at the former Tustin and El Toro bases. The region was also flush with orange groves. Though the military jobs evaporated with the base closures in the 90's and the citrus farms being developed, the growth of OC's economic job hub of the Irvine Business Complex kept the region economically alive. However, the continued population growth and lack of residential housing brought the purchase price of regular tract housing to $750,000 or more with single bedroom rentals in excess of over $2,000 per month which had displaced many of these workers into the Inland Empire. To be fair, infill residential development is rapidly taking place in Irvine but still not fast enough in other areas of Orange County.

All one has to do is ask the hundreds of thousands of commuters that work in Irvine or other areas of Orange County and commute in via the 91 Freeway of why they don't live where they work. They will correctly tell you it's too expensive.

According to the Vista LA news story, developers have recently been looking into investing in areas like Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles. Both of these regions have rich cultures and house the region's working class families, most of whom work in the service sector. Because of high housing demands and low supply, land owners have been able to raise rents annually by substantial margins which results in economic pressure on these working families because salaries have generally remained stagnant. According to the report, some families faced rent hikes upwards of $500 per month or 25% in a single year; chances are their income to pay for such hikes didn't reflect that. As a result, these people are priced out and forced to leave. Thus, the cultures and demographics at both of these LA suburbs are in trouble.

Venice and West LA went through this phase a few decades ago as wealthy investors and actors bought up the property but regulatory rules prevented developers from expanding the housing supply to meet the new demands which too resulted in the displacement of the working class families in this area. To be fair, infill smart growth was still maturing back then, but out-of-control pricing still remains in 2017.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti understands the issue and knows that LA needs a growth in housing supply. In addition, he supports informing residents of their tenant rights and enforcing the Ellis Act law to better protect residents living in leased units, especially subsidized housing.

This issue has now crept its way into the Inland Empire. Corona and the Temecula Valley have become expensive with the remaining affordable areas like Menifee, Hemet, Lake Elsinore and other towns along the SR-74 corridor threatened. To say we are at a crisis point is an understatement.

There is no question that high demands for housing and low supply are the cause of this entire issue. In fact, go to South LA, check out the population density, and look at the housing infrastructure. Then, take a stroll through Old Town Temecula. You'll find that the former is way more populated; the latter is more developed but with far less people living there. The hourly bus service frequency of local RTA Routes 24 and 79 should speak of that. Compare that with the numerous LA Metro bus routes and the Metro Rail Blue Line that run through South Central every 15 minutes or better.

I will say once again that the state government needs to pass a variation of Governor Brown's proposed Smarter Smart Growth Law; policy that will streamline the regulatory process for infill residential development that meets local zoning rules so that housing demands can be met and market unit prices and rentals can become affordable for the working class. For example, the proposed 1,000 housing unit arm of the Sears Mail Order Building renovating project in LA deserves expedited processing simply because it is infill. The investor should have been cleared to develop those units years ago.

Regulatory reform at the state level is the key to encourage the development industry to better compete and develop the infill housing necessary to expand supply. That will allow inventory to finally meet market demands in the Golden State and I believe that this is the answer to reverse cultural displacement and gentrification because market rents and purchase units will once again be competitive and affordable. South LA can one day become a paradise with first-rate housing infrastructure that existing residents can partake in.

In fact, a reverse term for gentrification has been coined and is floating around in this debate: "Gentefication" which means the people moving back and investing themselves into the community and protecting the historic culture and demographics of the area.

We need to encourage this new "gentefication" and pass the Smarter Smart Growth Law to fight gentrification, and expanding market housing supply and inventory for the working middle class is the answer. The governments need to get rid of all of the unnecessary red tape that stands in the way and finally solve this problem.