LOS ANGELES--State-level policymakers have engaged in more than their share of debates over the future of smart grown in California this year. They've debated level of service vs. vehicle miles traveled. They've debated the neediness and definition of disadvantaged communities. They've clamored for cap-and-trade funds. They've tried to reform CEQA and get rid of CEQA (well, not quite). 

By contrast, today's technical assistance workshop on concept submittals for the inaugural funding round of the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program was a staid affair. Today's event was one in a series of statewide meetings conducted by staff members from the Strategic Growth Council and the Department of Housing and Community Development, which are administering AHSC. The program is designed to disburse $120 million to municipalities and other entities for planning and partially funding affordable housing, transit-oriented development, and other projects that help California reduce its carbon footprint. 

While the audience -- a nearly packed house of 100 or so of mostly city officials and affordable housing developers -- posed its share of questions, rancor was minimal. That's probably because the deadline for the initial applications, called "concept submittals" is February 19. Even these pre-applications are extensive, and no one has a moment to spare. 

The concept submittal process is designed to help SGC staff determine whether a project is eligible for AHSC assistance. SGC will announce a short list of candidates around March 11, with full applications due April 15. Staff will evaluate those applications, pick their favorites, and submit them to the SGC board for approval by early July. As the program is new, SGC Deputy Director Allison Joe, who led the workshop, admitted that they do not know how many applications they will receive. 

So, the clock is ticking. 

Here are highlights of the criteria for the concept submittal round: 

  • Projects must either be "transit oriented developments" or "integrated connectivity projects." TOD's are assumed to be near high-frequency, high-capacity transit lines while ICP's are more loosely connected to transit. SGC expects that most ICP applications will be from suburban and rural areas. 
  • At least 40% of funding will go to TOD's and at least 30% will go to ICP's.  At least 30% of funding must go to disadvantaged communities, regardless of whether projects are TOD's or ICP's. 
  • Funds may be directed towards capital improvements, affordable housing, planning and planning of programs that support AHSC goals; all projects must have benefits that long outlast the expenditure of AHSC funds.  
  • Projects must meet statutory thresholds, including those mandating greenhouse gas reductions, implementation of Sustainable Communities Strategies; they may also meet other state priorities, including promotion of infill development, equity, and protection of natural resources and agricultural lands. 
  • Program-specific thresholds largely relate to the viability of projects. They must have their environmental clearances and entitlements, and they must essentially be shovel-ready. 
  • Projects will be scored as follows: 55% on greenhouse gas reduction, 30% on policy objectives, such as affordable housing, walkabilty, bike-ability, anti-displacement, etc.; 15% on feasibility and readiness, including leverage of different funding sources. 

The application, which is found online at the state Water Resources Board's FAAST system, includes a 29-item checklist of vehicle-miles traveled reduction strategies. Every project must identify at least one strategy on which SGC will evaluate it; projects may check as many items as are applicable, but projects do not necessarily need to check multiple items. SGC is, essentially, looking for quality, not necessarily quantity. The concept proposal application asks applicants to provide detailed information about their projects, including extensive information about their finances. It's a complex application process but, to their credit, SGC staff made it seem reasonably straightforward, with transparent criteria, for those applicants willing to put in the effort. 

One attendee wondered whether the collective effort among cities and other applicants will be justified by the amount of funding that SGC disburses. SGC staff admitted that they are running an experiment and that their efforts to essentially reconcile transportation funding and affordable housing funding -- an admittedly gargantuan task -- requires cities to be patient and cooperative. SGC staff pledged that they will push for $200 million in AGSC funding for 2016, when many kinks may be worked out. 

This article has been updated since its initial public to reflect the involvement of the Department of Housing and Community Development.