HR&A’s Judith Taylor on Housing, Transit & Placemaking, and Green Jobs


In the bustling landscape of real estate and economic advisory, HR&A stands out as a beacon for equitable and sustainable community development. In an exclusive interview with VX News, Judith Taylor, a Partner based in HR&A’s Los Angeles office, sheds light on the firm's multifaceted focuses. Drawing from her roots in the Inland Empire, Taylor shares insights into her passion for placemaking and density, advocating for sustainable growth and vibrant communities. As California grapples with a housing crisis, Taylor underscores HR&A’s commitment to not just building housing, but to crafting resilient communities that foster economic opportunities.

VX News: Let's begin by your sharing HR&A's focus areas and your role in the firm.

Judith Taylor: My name is Judith Taylor, and I'm a partner with HR&A’s Los Angeles office. We are a premier real estate and economic advisory firm that works across the nation, and we have significant expertise across the board supporting equitable and sustainable communities. We have partners that work in everything -- from public policy to transit-oriented development, affordable housing to equitable economic development, and many other sectors.

Particularly, I serve as a lead in supporting our equitable economic development work, which brings together real estate and economic expertise to build economic strategies that strengthen local and regional economies. I work with the intent to improve economic opportunities for all residents across race, ethnicity, and income levels. In a roundabout way, that work has brought me into the sphere of the green economy.

My background and expertise for my green economy work began when I connected with the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI). We worked together on a green jobs study that was released in 2021, and this was one of a few of its kind in Los Angeles. Many existing studies were on the national or California level, but fewer studies were looking to specifically understand the existing green jobs in the Los Angeles region.

HR&A now has offices in New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, and beyond… but you're in the Los Angeles one. Why is it most appropriate for you to be in HR&A’s LA office?

There is a great deal of opportunity in LA -- from our growing transit network to our changing economy that is moving towards resilience and green jobs. There is also the opportunity and challenge of the growth we're having across the board in terms of housing and population, there are all sorts of super exciting changes that are happening in Los Angeles -- like the move to density and growth in our nature as an urban space.

I'm from the greater Southern California region, so I've lived here all my life minus a few forays to Northern California and the East Coast for school. I grew up in the Inland Empire, so not only is Southern California a place that’s rich in opportunity for the work I do -- it’s also home.

We've had several interviews over the decades focused on economic development and metropolitan Los Angeles; elaborate on your personal focus on economic and placemaking strategies for historically disadvantaged communities. What does that entail?

As someone who grew up in the Inland Empire, I’ve seen a lot of changes in this region over the last 40 to 50 years. There's been significant growth and a change in thinking about how we want to experience our communities. Los Angeles has traditionally been “a drive till you qualify” metropolis. Folks were driving out of the City when they couldn't afford to live in the core employment areas in Los Angeles, and driving to where they could afford a home. This contributed to a lot of suburban residential area growth around Los Angeles.

But today, that status quo is changing because we’ve really stretched that model to its breaking point. The question now is: How do we grow in a way that's supportive of the environment and communities?

To me, placemaking and density have key roles to play in more sustainable growth in our region. At least where I grew up in Chino Hills, we didn't have many ‘third spaces’ that you'd find in larger cities like LA. That has been changing, and you now see, in the Inland Empire and beyond, a trend where cities are starting to invest in these amenities. These are spaces with opportunities for people to gather and connect, and they’re so important to urban placemaking, particularly as cities become denser. Brea had a renaissance of their downtown over the last decade, then there's Claremont -- all of these are these developments that are much more interesting than what you would have found 20 or 30 years ago.

You picked places that have done a really good job of placemaking, but the rest of metropolitan LA and California are consumed by the state's directive to create greater housing density, without any attention to anything else.

On housing density, how does HR&A positively contribute to addressing California’s housing/placemaking policy crisis?

There's a huge affordable housing crisis, which I know everyone's well aware of. In California and also across the nation, there’s very much a need for additional housing. However, HR&A works from the perspective that we need to do housing that's really going to benefit communities across the long term. Some of that is about the smart location of where that housing will be.

For instance, my work with Metro supports their recent push to create 10,000 new units before 2030 across their transit station portfolio. My team and I built a financial calculator that helped them to quantify the number of market rate and deed restricted affordable housing units possible on their available property. Locating housing at these key locations is important because it connects folks to employment opportunities and will hopefully reduce single-vehicle commuters.

Rather than be solely focused on housing, we like to think about how we build resilient communities. How are we creating communities as we locate this housing supply? How are we providing economic opportunities for those in that housing? We need to consider the transit connection while creating places around those areas that in themselves, are places of interest.

When I think about the transit network in Los Angeles, I recognize that we've done a lot, but there's a long way to go. As we think about a transit network, we need to create strong spaces to ultimately ensure that folks want to actually go to those places. Those places don’t need to be limited to Los Angeles; they should be throughout all of Southern California.

If you asked to write a statement for a Mayor in Southern California focusing on the importance of economic development and value of placemaking -- what would you write?

If it was a general statement for a Southern California Mayor, I think I would address the affordable housing crisis as one of our key crises of this decade. I would stress that we need to create and support additional housing but in a manner that is building places that people want to live in.

I often think about a project I did for the South Bay Council of Governments where we talked about creating nodes of development and getting back to the village model. When we consider creating nodes of activity throughout communities, we should be thinking about how they can meet all kinds of people’s needs. Increasingly, folks are working from their homes, so these nodes would allow people to live within a 10-minute – 20-minute walk of everything they needed. With the right support from Mayors and other public and private stakeholders, this could become more possible in this next era.

Related to the challenge of making shelter more affordable & available, ‘Up-Zoning’ now has been mandated by the State of California as THE means by which to create more supply, and thus, more affordable housing opportunity. Is there any evidence anywhere in North America that up-zoning residential neighborhoods has resulted in more affordable housing becoming available?

I support a significant amount of anti-displacement work across the country, and with this work, I see three areas that need to be addressed (1) policies and protections to support the most vulnerable and prevent housing displacement (2) expand the supply of housing with a focus on more affordable housing and (3) support economic mobility. I'm often focused on policies to support residents who are facing evictions and immediate displacement challenges, but increasing the housing supply is an integral part of this housing crisis that we're facing and raises displacement concerns.

Re: prioritizing the building of more housing, what do you envision will happen to the Adams Blvd corridor in Los Angeles in the next 10 years?

It’s going to be growing, and a lot more density will be added. I believe there will be displacement challenges for the folks who live there, and I actually believe those displacement challenges have been happening for the last 10 years.

One could say that communities and cities should be thinking about and putting in place certain mechanisms before speculation happens. We all know that much of Adams is already bought up and it is going to change. My work focuses on how to support current residents to benefit from the change rather than simply get pushed out.

Is your contention -- widely accepted -- that upzoning Adams Blvd will result in housing prices declining? Or even being within reach of most current residents?

I do believe that you need to increase the housing supply, and this is one of the potential solutions.

It’s interesting because I'm usually working in anti-displacement within communities that are dealing with the challenges of upzoning. I recognize that there are challenges with increased density, particularly when all of the development is focused in a historically low-income community. However, one of the things that those state policies, as you mentioned, help to do is to remove the pressure from low-income communities that are more likely to face those challenges and spread them more evenly across all communities. Low-income communities traditionally are the ones who have the least political power to resist unwanted density.

With respect to building more affordable housing in metro LA, the Planning Report published last year an interview:  SoLa Impact’s affordable housing builds in South LA for 200 to 250 thousand a door, The aforementioned shelter price per unit compares to  the $800 thousand per door now typically being built by non profit and for profit developers. What explains why Solar’s development model is not the standard?

Metro was doing an innovation study into the costs of housing, but I have also seen the pre-fabricated homes that SoLa Impact is developing. That's a new model, and honestly, we need more new models that are going to bring down the costs of housing because that is one of the challenges -- as we talked about in the Adams district.

Currently, Southern California’s challenge is that our traditional construction costs are so high that to build financially feasible units, they have to be built for upper-income households. Those are the only folks who are going to be able to afford these newer units. Still, we do need more of these units, because when upper middle-income folks can’t afford to purchase in Santa Monica or Culver City, many are moving down to the Crenshaw district based on affordability, displacing current residents. Unless you have more units in the Adams district and elsewhere, that push is going to continue.

Have you, in your economic analysis work, explored value capture as a way to find revenue to assure truly affordable housing in Metro LA?

That’s an interesting question and we've had conversations with folks who are considering value capture opportunities. I know Destination Crenshaw has thought about value-capture opportunities to support community needs. Currently, the tools most used for tax increment financing (TIF) are enhanced infrastructure financing districts (EIFD). Previously, California Redevelopment agencies were able to utilize TIF to support value capture and a portion of the tax increment was required to be used for affordable housing, but that became challenged when Redevelopment authority was terminated.

As soon as it went away, there was a significant drop in the resources and funds available to affordable housing developers. At HR&A, I have led studies on the potential of EIFD’s , focusing on a specific district around the LA River as well as in Hollywood. In both cases, we looked to ensure a significant percentage of the EIFD was used to build a sustainable source of funding to support affordable housing. This also makes sense conceptually as that increased development likely brings employees, activity, and new residential to the district, which I just described has to be upper income, an EIFD functions to use a part of that new value to ensure there is also new affordable housing units, hopefully sustaining the affordability of the community.

Pivoting back to your work with LACI and green jobs, what needs to happen to leave no one behind as the state and cities accelerate a transition to a cleaner economy?

As mentioned, we supported the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) with the green jobs study in 2021. We’ve also supported some of their transportation electrification partnership work a couple of years back, and I've done green job assessments in other cities like Richmond, California.

The importance here is that the economy is greening. The economy is going through lots of structural changes from work to home, not to mention the addition of AI. However, the economy is greening as a whole, so it becomes extremely important that we ensure everybody can participate in that new green economy.

There's going to be a lot of growth happening in the green economy, and the Inflation Reduction Act has helped accelerate that, which is exciting. Here in Los Angeles, we have significant opportunities in a variety of industries and sectors like clean energy and clean transportation, so there are opportunities for folks across the income spectrum to participate. Folks must understand that opportunity.

Often, when people think of green jobs, they think of solar installers on roofs and yes, that is an important element of green jobs. When you really look at green jobs, which we define as jobs that support green goods and services, including businesses that are responsible for making production processes more environmentally friendly, only about 40% are jobs people typically consider green such as solar installers or green battery makers. The other 60% of jobs are often office-based, administration, software developers, and engineers -- all of these jobs are not necessarily related to what we typically picture as a green job. Folks need to understand that there’s a wide range of opportunities in the green economy, which is only expanding over time.

Lastly, engaging communities and informing stakeholders is clearly a HR&A firm value. What have you found to be the most effective ways you communicate your findings & reports to the public?

Two things come to mind in response to this question: how to communicate the evolving green economy and HR&A’s approach to community outreach in general. For the first, as the economy is greening, regions need to think about how are we setting up a workforce pipeline to fill those opportunities.

As you mentioned, how do we get folks to understand this opportunity?

One of the things that's interesting about green jobs is that a lot of them do not require a typical bachelor's degree. There are lots of opportunities for a wide variety of uses. In addition, the training that's going to occur for the green economy may not be happening in college, because it is not a standardized industry.

We need to think about bringing this information to K through 12 schools. How do we bring this training into vocational education and adult education community colleges? It’s all about connecting with specific institutions and ensuring that students are recognizing this green opportunity. I also think that there should be more discussion about how the economy is greening. People often see just one side of it, which is the fear and challenge around climate change. They need to see the opportunities that come with how we can make a positive impact.

Community engagement and informing stakeholders is a huge part of what we do at HR&A. We try to take an inclusive approach to engagement on any project and center equity in our process. So, it’s important to ask questions like, “Are we providing accessible methods of all community members to share their input and feel like they have a voice at the table?” and “Are we sharing updates with the community at key milestones, and are these updates distributed via methods that will reach them?” For example, not all members of a community might have access to high-speed internet at home, so we often share key report findings at a public meeting.

Some strong examples of this kind of tailored outreach can be found in our Equitable Governance work like NYC Speaks or All in Allegheny where we work with local communities via surveys and outreach events to gather input to inform newly-elected officials’ priorities or a neighborhood action plan we are bringing to Council in the City of Sacramento where we partnered with a community based organization from kickoff to completion to ensure the community was at the center of our project.

"HR&A works from the perspective that we need to do housing that's really going to benefit communities across the long term" - Judith Taylor