Advancing Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

photo by David Wilson

MZ Strategies has posted a white paper funded by the Ford Foundation, Advancing Equitable Transit-Oriented Development through Community Partnerships and Public Sector Leadership. It opens,

Communities across the country are investing in better transit to connect people of all income levels to regional economic and social opportunity. Transit can be a catalyst for development, and the demand for housing and mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods located near quality transit continues to grow. In some places like Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles (to name just a few) land prices and rents near transit have increased substantially creating concerns with the displacement of small businesses and affordable housing.

In response, multi-sector coalitions are forming in a number of regions to advance Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD), which aims to create and support communities of opportunity where residents of all incomes, ages, races and ethnicities participate in and benefit from living in connected, healthy, vibrant places connected by transit. These transit-oriented communities of opportunity include a mixture of housing, office, retail and other amenities as part of a walkable neighborhood generally located within a half-mile of quality public transportation. This white paper pulls together emerging eTOD best practices from four regions, and highlights opportunities to use federal finance and development programs administered by US Department of Transportation to create and preserve inclusive communities near transit. It offers lessons learned for other communities and a set of recommendations for the Federal Transit Administration to better support local efforts by transit agencies to advance eTOD.

Achieving eTOD involves an inclusive planning process during the transit planning and community development phases. This entails long-term and active engagement of a diverse set of community partners ranging from local residents, small business owners, community development players, and neighborhood-serving organizations located along the proposed or existing transit corridor, to regional anchor institutions and major employers including universities and health care providers, to philanthropy, local and regional agencies and state government partners.

Equitable outcomes require smart, intentional strategies to ensure wide community engagement. Successful eTOD requires planning not just for transit, but also for how this type of catalytic investment can help to advance larger community needs including affordable housing, workforce and small business development, community health and environmental clean-up. (1, footnote omitted)

The report presents e-TOD case studies from Minneapolis-St. Paul; Los Angeles; Seattle and Denver.  These case studies highlight the types of tools that state and local governments can use to maximize the value of transit-oriented design for broad swathes of the community.


The Long Wait for Home


The most recent issue of Housing Spotlight from the National Low Income Housing Coalition is titled The Long Wait for a Home. The Executive Summary reads,

The Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) programs provide essential affordable housing to some of the nation’s most financially vulnerable households. Forty percent of new public housing admissions and 75% of new voucher holders each year are required to be extremely low income (ELI) households, who earn no more than 30% of their area’s median income (AMI) or the federal poverty guideline, whichever is higher. Seventy-one percent of the nearly 1.1 million public housing households and 74% of the 2.2 million HCV recipient households are ELI (HUD, 2015).

The housing resources available to ELI renters however are insufficient. The private and subsidized rental markets make available only 3.2 million affordable homes for the nation’s 10.4 million ELI renter households, resulting in a national shortage of 7.2 million rental homes (NLIHC, 2016). ELI households face a long wait for housing assistance. Unable to find affordable housing, 75% of ELI renter households are severely cost burdened, spending more than 50% of their income on housing costs and leaving little money for other necessities (NLIHC, 2016).

The last nationwide survey of Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) regarding their public housing and voucher waiting lists was conducted in 2012. Since then, rental affordability has worsened, squeezing ELI renters even further out of the private market. To document the current state of waiting lists, NLIHC surveyed PHAs in the Fall of 2015 and Winter of 2016. Three hundred twenty PHAs responded with complete surveys, representing a diversity of size, location, and metropolitan status.

Survey data paint a bleak picture of waiting lists closed to new applicants and long waits for housing assistance. Key findings include: „

  • Fifty-three percent of HCV waiting lists were closed to new applicants for housing assistance. Sixty-five percent of HCV waiting lists closed to the general public had been closed for at least one year. „
  • Eleven percent of public housing waiting lists were closed to new applicants. Thirty-seven percent of public housing waiting lists closed to the general public had been closed for at least one year. „
  • The median HCV waiting list had a wait time of 1.5 years. Twenty-five percent of HCV waiting lists had a wait time of 3 years or longer. „
  • The median public housing waiting list had a wait time of 9 months. Twenty-five percent of public housing waiting lists had a wait time of 1.5 years or longer. „
  • ELI households accounted for nearly 74% of households on the average HCV waiting list and more than 67% of households on the typical public housing waiting list.
  • Families with children accounted for 60% of households on the average HCV waiting list and 46% of households on the typical public housing waiting list. „
  • Seniors comprised the most common type of household on 15% of the public housing waiting lists for which these data were provided.

Closed waiting lists and long waits for housing assistance make clear that we must expand housing resources for our nation’s lowest income renters. Legislation introduced in the 114th Congress would increase investments in vouchers, public housing, and other housing programs.

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These policy changes, and others like them, could end housing poverty and homelessness once and for all by providing the resources necessary for every low income family to afford a home.

This report rightly brings attention to the big problems facing extremely low income households and federal affordable housing programs. Whether anything is done for them depends completely on the outcome of the election.

Just a Dude Fixin’ Cars

car-lift quoted me in Neighbors Sue Man for Tinkering With Cars in His Own Garage. It opens,

Charles Williams loves working on cars, a hobby he’s continued even after losing his legs in 1993 in a freak construction accident. So in 2007, he poured $65,000 into building a nearly 2,000-square-foot four-car garage next to his house in Harbeson, DE. The place—which has vintage license plates covering the walls and lifts so he and his buddies can tinker to their heart’s content without lying on the concrete floor—is a car nut’s fantasy. At least, it was, until some of Williams’ neighbors—apparently offended by the sight, smell, and sounds of guys doing guy stuff—decided to sue Williams for repairing cars in his own garage.

In 2014, three of Williams’s neighbors—Margaret Foulke next door and John and Carol Kane, who live 800 feet down the road—filed a lawsuit against Williams saying that the garage was a noisy, stinky nuisance and must be torn down, according to The Cape Gazette. In June, a judge ruled in favor of Williams, explaining simply, “Mr. Williams has a not-uncommon hobby—working on cars—that he pursues with an uncommon vigor.”

Nonetheless, the neighbors plan to take their case up the chain to the Delaware Supreme Court.

Williams says he’s spent $30,000 defending himself from his accusers, who also claim he built the garage without permits and runs it as an illegal business. But Williams denies these allegations as well, saying he received the proper permission to build and has never accepted money in exchange for repairs. In fact, he has even fixed vehicles owned by the very people are demanding that he tear down his garage!

“I’ve fixed their lawnmowers, I’ve fixed their tractor, I’ve fixed their golf carts… I did everything for them, anything they asked, since that’s what neighbors do,” says Williams.

At first glance, the plaintiffs seem like candidates for a “worst neighbors” award. But we had to wonder: Is there anything to this case? Is it ever illegal for to tinker with  cars in your own garage?

While local laws vary by area, as a general rule, David Reiss, a professor of Law at Brooklyn University and editor of, thinks the neighbors are spinning their wheels.

“The facts sure don’t seem to be on their side, at least as this article portrays them,” says Reiss. Here’s a rundown of the neighbor’s complaints about the garage, and why Williams appears to be in the clear.

Noise complaints

“There are a lot of loud things in and near homes,” points out Reis. Compare a vacuum cleaner at 10 feet (70 decibels) to a lawnmower (as high as 90 decibels) to a train (100 decibels).

“Many localities have restrictions on the decibel level of noise that can come from a property, but those levels can be pretty darn high,” Reiss explains. “New York City, for instance, limits garbage trucks to 80 decibels from a distance of 35 feet when they’re not compacting. It limits music from commercial establishments to 42 decibels when measured from inside a neighbor’s home.”

In other words, the sound of a few motors running or rock music probably aren’t loud enough to write home about—or to sue over.

Noxious fumes and other nuisances

Sure, these neighbors could claim that the eau de motor oil emanating from William’s garage is a “nuisance.” It’s just that they would have to be deemed “unreasonable in the context of their residential neighborhood,” says Reiss.

“The neighbors could also argue that the increased traffic that resulted from this use was a nuisance too, but that also seems like a major stretch,” says Reiss.

Illegal activity

“The neighbors could claim that Williams is running a commercial establishment in a residential neighborhood, but it sounds from the article like the facts don’t support this claim,” says Reiss. So unless the neighbors catch a huge wad of cash passing hands, Williams is just a regular dude who digs cars.

Leverage in a Tight Market

photo by Rex Pe quoted me in Home Shoppers Seeking Leverage in a Tight Market. It opens,

Homebuyers have faced tight supply issues this year, and obtaining leverage in this market has been challenging.

The lower inventories pushed sales in July down by 3%, according to the National Association of Realtors, a Chicago-based trade organization. The decline has resulted in sales falling back to levels in March and April with an annualized pace of 5.39 million, bringing the sales pace down by 2% from July 2015. The level of inventory of homes for sale has declined by 6%.
As the faster summer buying pace has moved into the fall phase when there are fewer buyers, consumers have a greater advantage as homes are on the market longer. For both May and June, the listings stayed on a median of 65 days. By July, that figure rose to 68 days and August brings even more options and should end at 72 days. The reduction of inventory has occurred for 47 consecutive months, helping sellers, but restricting options for buyers.

For homebuyers who want to nab their dream house in the neighborhood they have been eyeing, they still have leverage, but here are some tips to improve the process.

Home Buying Tips

Before consumers start shopping, they should work on improving their finances and avoid making any large purchases such as a car. After finding out your FICO score, the goal is to find ways for it to rise above 700, which means you will qualify with more lenders and obtain a lower interest rate, saving you thousands of dollars, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company.

Determine how much you can carve out of your savings for a down payment, but still maintain six months of emergency funds, especially if you are buying an older home which may have unexpected repairs.

The average down payment in 2016 is 11% across the U.S., but it depends vastly on the market and loan you are seeking.

“If you are struggling to come up with a down payment necessary for your market or type of mortgage, research down payment assistance programs,” he said. “Get all of your financial records organized, including recent bank and financial statements, the last two years of income tax filings and pay statements.”

There are many opportunities available since mortgage rates remain near historic lows and are unlikely to see substantial moves soon.

“The buying opportunity is still substantial and now the annual cycle means you will face less competition on homes that are on the market,” Smoke said.

Sellers want to see serious buyers, so getting pre-approved from a lender is important.

“A pre-approval letter as part of an offer will communicate to the seller that you have the ability to close,” he said.

Sellers still have an advantage and even though there are fewer potential buyers with fall right around the corner, the existing inventory remains low, so getting a house under contract can still be problematic, Smoke said.

“Don’t expect sellers to feel desperate,” he said. “Sellers may still act like it is the spring. Listen to the advice of your realtor on the composition of the initial offer so that you are more likely to keep the conversation going rather than face complete rejection.”

While you continue to search for another home, maintain your savings and increase the amount of your down payment and keep paying down your credit cards and student loans. Consumers who will be receiving a bonus in December should include these funds it into their down payment. If the interest rates for your credit card rates are fairly low, consider bulking up your down payment since mortgage rates are very low, said Colby Sambrotto, president of, a New York-based online real estate broker. said. These measures will help increase your odds as you house hunt.

“Ask your lender to recalculate your loan preapproval to reflect your updated debt-to-income ratio and the greater amount you can put down,” he said. “That can reframe your search parameters.”

Down payment assistance is available through employer and community group programs. Some companies will offer loans if you remain employed there for a certain number of years, said Sambrotto. A good source for more information about various programs is Down Payment Resource.

“The loans are usually geared to encourage employees to buy around a certain area, usually within walking distance of the employer,” he said.

Location is Key

Transportation can emerge as a “hidden cost” if your commute includes costly tolls or you want quicker access to cultural and sporting events, schools for children, shopping districts and professional education opportunities.

“Narrow your search to neighborhoods that offer economical options for commuting and routine errands,” Sambrotto said. “Look for neighborhood groups on Facebook and ask to join the conversation so you can quiz current residents about the true cost of living in that area.”

While homeowners might prefer a standard standalone house, a two-family duplex might be a better option, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York. These homes have a clear advantage because they generate investment income along with various financing, tax and capital gains advantages which the traditional single-family house does not have.

“Think through your preferences and then take a fresh look at the market,” he said. “You might have that idealized picket-fenced house in mind, but a duplex will expand the number of houses you can look at. They also bring along all sorts of additional maintenance responsibilities with them, so they are not right for everyone.”

Questions Your Broker Might Not Answer

zipper-306737_1280 quoted me in 4 Questions Your Agent Might Not Answer—and Why. It reads, in part,

Want to know how old the roof is on a house, or whether it uses gas or electrical heat? Your trusty real estate agent can tell you pretty much anything you need to know about a home you’re hoping to buy (or at least find answers for you). Yet if you ask your agent certain questions, you might be puzzled to hear nothing but an awkward silence. Why?

It’s not that real estate agents don’t know the answer; they probably do. It’s just that they’re correctly staying on the right side of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or family/economic status.

So that silence is actually a good thing—it means that your agent is conscientiously steering clear of the tinderbox issues hidden within your innocent questions.

Here are the top ones that leave them feeling tongue-tied—plus where you can actually find the answers you seek.

Question No. 1: Is this a good place to raise a family?

This question is often “a lose/lose/lose for the Realtor®,” says David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who specializes in real estate. If an agent admits a certain area is not all that family-friendly, “it could imply that families with kids aren’t welcome.” Or, on the flip side, “if the agent says that the neighborhood is a good place for kids, that could be interpreted as saying households without kids aren’t welcome, which is another form of discrimination.”

Housing professionals who try to either encourage or discourage home buyers based on the kid question can, and do, face consequences in court.

Bottom line: Rather than get burned, a cautious agent refrains from presuming where you and your brood will thrive. So if you want to know this info, you’ll have to do your own research  (more on how to do that below).

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Question No. 4: How are the schools here?

Because the racial divide can also run deep in U.S. schools, “a Realtor has to be careful not to let their answer be construed as a coded message about race,” Reiss says. Rather than risk a potentially offensive miscommunication, Realtors may very well introduce you to one of many websites that rank schools—such as Great Schools and School Digger.

Another option: If you have your heart set on your child attending a certain school, download’s mobile app, which allows you to search for homes for sale by school district.

Business as Usual with the CFPB

photo by Lars Plougmann

Law360 quoted me in CFPB Remains Strong Despite DC Circ. Single-Director Ruling (behind paywall). It reads, in part,

A blockbuster D.C. Circuit ruling Tuesday declaring the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s single-director leadership structure unconstitutional is unlikely to have a major effect on the bureau’s day-to-day operations and may make it easier for the agency to fend off critics who claim it lacks accountability, experts say.

The 110-page ruling from a split three-judge panel not only decried the leadership structure that Congress gave the CFPB in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, but made a change that allows the president to dismiss the bureau’s director at will, in a case that saw a $109 million judgment against PHH Corp. overturned. That move should provide the CFPB with more direct oversight, the D.C. Circuit said.

The change also does not touch the CFPB director’s power to issue rules and enforcement actions and oversee appeals of any administrative actions that the bureau brings. And because of that, the CFPB will not have to change much of what it does despite the harsh words in the opinion, said Frank Hirsch, the head of Alston & Bird’s financial services litigation team.

“I don’t think that the D.C. Circuit opinion was intended to create fundamental differences. I think the fact that the director can be dismissed at will now is the only substantive change,” he said.

Tuesday’s hotly anticipated ruling laid out in stark language many of the concerns that Republicans in Congress, the consumer financial services industry and other critics have long stated about the CFPB’s structure.

PHH was appealing the bureau’s $109 million disgorgement order over allegations the company referred consumers to mortgage insurers in exchange for reinsurance orders with its subsidiaries and reinsurance fees. The conduct, according to the CFPB, violated the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act.

Included in PHH’s appeal was a constitutional challenge to the CFPB’s structure.

The opinion, written by U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, laid out the potential dangers of giving one person the amount of authority that is vested in the CFPB director.

Judge Kavanaugh said that the bureau as constructed, with a single director that can only be fired for cause rather than the traditional multimember commission setup at independent regulatory agencies, vested too much power in one person to make decisions about new regulations, enforcement actions and appeals of those enforcement actions in administrative proceedings.

In its way, the CFPB director has authority rivaled only by the president, the decision said.

“Indeed, within his jurisdiction, the director of the CFPB can be considered even more powerful than the president. It is the director’s view of consumer protection law that prevails over all others. In essence, the director is the President of Consumer Finance,” Judge Kavanaugh wrote.

The judge also described at length why commissions were better for independent regulatory agencies than a single director, even though a single director can move more quickly on enforcement actions and rulemakings. Having a commission means that a director or chair will be constrained in their actions, potentially preventing abuses, the opinion said.

“Indeed, so as to avoid falling back into the kind of tyranny that they had declared independence from, the Framers often made trade-offs against efficiency in the interest of enhancing liberty,” Judge Kavanaugh wrote.

Those words were welcomed by the CFPB’s many critics.

“This is a good day for democracy, economic freedom, due process and the Constitution. The second-highest court in the land has vindicated what House Republicans have said all along, that the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said in a statement.

Hensarling and other Republicans in Congress have long pushed to put a commission atop the CFPB, and legislation Hensarling has introduced to replace Dodd-Frank includes that change.

Backers of the CFPB have long rejected the argument that the bureau is unaccountable, noting that it is subject to notice and comment for rulemaking, its rules are subject to judicial and other reviews, and the director makes regular appearances before Congress.

But instead of installing a commission or eliminating the CFPB altogether because of the constitutional issue, as had been requested by PHH and other, largely conservative activist groups who filed amici briefs, Judge Kavanaugh simply severed the portion of Dodd-Frank that said the bureau’s director could be fired only for cause.

The result is that now the CFPB director is subject to the same employment standard as a cabinet secretary, and can be fired at the president’s whim.

“The president is a check on and accountable for the actions of those executive agencies, and the president now will be a check on and accountable for the actions of the CFPB as well,” Judge Kavanaugh said, adding that all of the CFPB’s previous decisions taken by its current director, Richard Cordray, remained in place.

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But even with that uncertainty hanging over the bureau, it is unlikely that the ruling will have much of an effect on the way the CFPB currently operates.

“The industry and consumer advocates can expect to see much of the same,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.