SLATE-Z's Effie Turnbull-Sanders on Community-Driven Development for Resilience & Sustainability in South LA

Effie Turnbull Sanders

South LA was designated a federal Promise Zone in June of 2016, allowing for significant investment both locally and federally, in economic, workforce, and transit-oriented development in the historically underserved community. VXNews interviews SLATE-Z Executive Director Effie Turnbull Sanders – on the organization's community development work, tied closely with Measure M and LA Metro’s continued investment in TOCs, and how to best leverage equitable private investment in South Los Angeles to grow job opportunities and address structural inequality

Effie, begin by sharing SLATE-Z’s impetus, mission, governance, and goals as a HUD-designated Promise Zone in South Los Angeles?

Effie Turnbull Sanders: SLATE-Z was designated as a Promise Zone in 2016 as a place-based strategy, and developed as part of a massive collective effort of community-based organizations, educational institutions, labor unions, government agencies, elected officials, and the private sector. They developed comprehensive, joint solutions to address the history of structural inequality, and bring home jobs, small business development, education, public safety, transit access, and equitable transit infrastructure to South LA.

The designation was made by the Department of Housing and Urban Development—which oversees the Promise Zone initiative—and has been implemented with the assistance of our lead agency, the Los Angeles Technical Trade College (LATTC). The Promise Zone initiative is a place-based strategy designed to capitalize on the human capital and strengths of South LA with some of the most robust and active community-based organizations in the nation to address the disparities in South LA, including a poverty rate that exceeds 75% in our most economically burdened core census tract.

We help to connect residents to jobs, education, and wealth building opportunities, using the true collective impact approach in building consensus with our partners. Key in this consensus building is an intentional focus on community engagement, feedback from community-based organizations and residents, and driving with data-driven results.

We’re governed by a 23-member steering committee and operated by a dedicated backbone organization that facilitates our collaboration with 71 implementation partners. We work to foster innovation so that partners can efficiently activate their strengths, and it’s this bottom-up approach that enhances our program, and is essential in the sustainability and long-term growth of our initiative.

Persistence and resilience are key in realizing our 10-year strategic plan to bring resources to South LA. One of our critical and historic motivations is really to address the challenges of the past—including historic redlining, implementation of government sponsored urban renewal programs that planned freeways that plowed through communities of color, took property by eminent domain without fair compensation, and implemented other kinds of race-based exclusionary zoning practices—all of which have had significant long-term negative consequences on the ability of South LA residents to create and pass down intergenerational wealth.

I think that without proactive and intentional efforts to focus on equity—like some of the plans that are being led by the City's Department of Water and Power or Metro—government runs the risk of replicating inequality and entrenching inequality in future policies.

At SLATE-Z, we've helped to shape some of these government agency policies as well as private sector practices, and are working on efforts to implement them to ensure that equity is a central focus. It has helped to create a greater sense of collaboration and build out the connective tissue that is necessary to fill in the gaps that are left when the social safety net fails.

We've been able to help streamline our partners’ work, reduce redundancy and duplication of efforts, and still capitalize on our joint and collective strengths to undergird our work into the future. We've had recent wins in the area of jobs with our partners LATTC, the city's workforce centers, and partnering community-based organizations that emphasize workforce development, to help connect over 4,700 residents to living wage jobs. We also helped to lead several pilot programs to remove barriers to work and education, including pilots to provide students and employees access to discounted and free transit programs in partnership with MoveLA, LA Promise Fund, the LA Mayor's office, Metro, and LAUSD.

TPR’s last Promise Zone interview was with LA Trade Tech President Larry Frank in 2016. At the time, his focus was how programmatic efforts in South Los Angeles would receive preference points when competing for federal grants awarded by HUD and 16 other federal agencies. With the change of federal administrations in 2017—is federal support still a focus? Or, as you suggest from your earlier comments, South Los Angeles social equity programs are now much more dependent on metropolitan-based institutions and on regional collaboration?

I think it's both. The successes of the Promise Zones nationally speak for themselves, and are a testament to the work of our partners across the country. Preference points were one of the main facets of the Promise Zone designation to help our partners have a strategic advantage in federal grants that offered them.

To date, SLATE-Z has helped our partners secure over $45 million in federal grants since our designation in 2016. We are seeing more grants with preference points associated with Opportunity Zones, so we are also looking at ways we can retain our mission, and focus and align where it makes sense with Opportunity Zone grants that carry preference points. In South LA, probably half of our census tracts within our Promise Zones are also federally designated Opportunity Zones.

Pivoting to the opportunities afforded by Opportunity Zones—especially in light of the lack of state conformity—what is the promise of Opportunity Zone community investments in South Los Angeles?

Opportunity Zones were part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which is different from other federal programs of the past. It's not a program; it's a potentially lucrative financial investment tool for those with capital gains to be able to invest in disadvantaged communities and receive significant tax benefits.

If used appropriately, the program presents a tremendous potential to revitalize communities that have historically experienced disinvestment or been overlooked in terms of public and private infrastructure investment. I think the way that we're navigating Opportunity Zones is being very intentional around the fact that Opportunity Zone strategies have to be specifically place-based; there's not a cookie cutter approach.

In Los Angeles, we are mindful of pressures around displacement of residents and jobs, and couple Opportunity Zones with other strategies—like our rent stabilization ordinance—to make sure that vulnerable residents are protected. We are working on the development of an investment prospectus for South Los Angeles and it is based on and grounded in community values. The City of LA adopted the South LA and the Southeast LA community plans (based in large part on the People’s Plan), and we’ve used those plans as the basis for the community values statement in our Opportunity Zone prospectus. The People’s Plan really is a roadmap and vision for more equitable, just, and fair development for land use practices in South LA. It looks at how we address these issues on a going-forward basis, and prioritizes favorable community needs, like affordable housing, sit-down restaurants, grocery stores, healthy food options, and prohibits disfavored uses like unregulated liquor and tobacco sales, unhealthy fast food restaurants, metal recycling plants, payday lenders and check cashing facilities, pawn shops, etc.

As you've correctly and wisely noted, an Opportunity Zone is an economically-distressed community where new private investments, under certain conditions, may afford investors preferential tax treatment. How does your committee envision applying a values screen to such private investments within OZ’s in South Los Angeles?

We're working with Accelerator for America to develop this community-driven perspective, and are working closely with our local city officials and elected officials around layering in their strategies for economic development with responsible opportunities and development. We've been approached by a number of socially conscious investors who want a return on their investment, to turn a profit, and meet longtime community needs, but don't want to exacerbate displacement.

I think there is a way to find those spots at the intersection of public and private investment, and use Opportunity Zone Funds. That has to be coupled with other strategies—like rent stabilization ordinances, access to capital and technical assistance for small businesses, local hire requirements, and other Opportunity Zone reporting requirements. And so, our strategy is looking at where those points of intersection with community needs and investor opportunities are.

Martin Muoto’s SoLa Impact Fund is already acquiring and investing in commercial space in South LA. Is the aforementioned a model for how SLATE-Z might take advantage of OZs to build a more resilient and equitable local economy?

We definitely have been watching the SoLa Impact Fund model, and we're looking at models that really focus on community and are able to provide a return on investment. As this develops, we will have to get more involved in the details of some of these deals, but some of the projects that SoLa is investing in are in our Promise Zone. We're very interested in continuing to have conversations with them about how their investment can fit within our plans as well.

Many national policymakers are discussing how best to scale up the “impact deal” pipeline; how to accelerate community-led development, inclusive growth, and equitable and resilient local economies. In California, attention also is being paid to how to leverage renewable energy state grants with OZ private capital. Is the latter of interest to SLATE-Z?

Definitely. We are currently working on—with the assistance of our partners—a fiscal mapping strategy with our partner LA n Sync to determine how this potential funding layering —from the State Strategic Growth Council (SGC), Transformative Climate Communities grant, or other grants—can work to bring equitable resilience and sustainability to South LA.

As an example, we have a project that we're looking at along the Slauson Avenue corridor—the site of the potential Rail to Rail project with LA Metro—that is also adjacent to Opportunity Zones. We are developing strategies to help our partnering community-based organizations access “WHAM”—LA County Measures W, H, A, and M—to help fortify the community, invest in affordable housing, and bring the resources and services to communities that they have been desiring for years but haven't received. Also, we are looking at anti-displacement strategies to make sure that those communities that received those investments aren’t then displaced, and as a result, never get to stick around to actually enjoy those benefits.

Effie, in our interview three years ago with Larry Frank, he shared that transit would be the focus of South Los Angeles’ Promise Zone.  Is this still the focus?

The term “Transit Empowerment Zone” came from the idea of capitalizing on the incoming transit line and the investment from Measures M and R in the local community. Many of our strategies focus on the transit lines in terms of our economic development strategies for corridors that run along those transit lines. We are looking at it from a workforce development perspective in terms of transit’s connective ability to get residents to and from education centers and work and connecting residents to opportunities that did not previously exist. We are also mindful that transit infrastructure development without local hire provisions and an economic development plan for the surrounding community and other supports can potentially escalate residential and commercial rent costs, leading to displacement. Developing strategies to support residents so that they are able to thrive in place and stay in their own neighborhoods is central to our overall 10-year goals.

Denny Zane from MoveLA last month argued that state efforts to marry housing density with transit investment—i.e. SB 50—arguably erode voter support for both. A couple of months ago, we also covered a community meeting of 350 at Holman United Methodist Church in opposition to SB 50 fearing displacement and the change of the character of neighborhoods on Adams and in South LA. Do you have views on this issue?

I do. This is a very controversial issue because we do want to reduce vehicle miles traveled and encourage transit use, but there are challenges. We look at those who have the highest propensity to ride, and the majority of transit users reflect the highest rates of working poverty. So, if we're thinking about increasing ridership for that population, we have to think about how we expand the number of affordable housing units near transit infrastructure. While creating incentives for density around transit to encourage ridership is great, the idea that market rate housing is going to somehow have a positive impact on the poor is a misnomer.

The tension comes when you have increased density around a transit-oriented development, and you have historic communities shifting and being displaced because of escalating rents that come with market rate housing in transit-oriented communities.

We have some of the wealthiest neighborhoods and some of the poorest in Los Angeles. South LA residents are concerned that without some guardrails and intentional focus on equity and the historic challenges with unfettered development, they feel like they're being pushed out.

There's been some resistance in California—on the part of labor and other progressives—to the utilization of Opportunity Zones because of the federal tax bill championed by President Trump that created it. It comes from the current administration in Washington, and there are some concerns that it might undermine other programs and other priorities. Have you picked that up in your conversations and your investment in thinking about how to utilize Opportunity Zones for the benefit of South LA and your Promise Zone?

In terms of SLATE-Z and our Promise Zone, we’re nonpartisan and part of our job is to make sure that we are working with our federal and local partners regardless of any administration change in a way that retains our core values, and tailors our work to our specific community needs. Accordingly, we continue to develop Opportunity Zone strategies that focus on community needs.

Lastly, how have your professional experiences— California Coastal Environmental Justice Commissioner and your work with LAUSD’s facilities team—informed the work that you now do on behalf of SLATE-Z?

Having the privilege of leading the work of SLATE-Z has been incredible.  It has enabled me to fulfill my passion and dream to work directly on a proactive vision to help revitalize South Los Angeles.  For me SLATE-Z has been an experience that facilitated the convergence of all of the professional and personal experiences that I've had throughout my life and career. I think those experiences have enabled me to see things from a deeply personal perspective, from a neighborhood level, as well as from a regional, statewide and national perspective. As a land use attorney, I understand the history and challenges around unjust land use practices, and I think that looking at issues from a perspective of diversity, equity and inclusion comes from work that I've done with the US Commission on Civil Rights. The marrying of land use and social justice has really enabled me to see the region in a more holistic manner.

With the Coastal Commission, I'm most excited about the recent adoption of an environmental justice (EJ) policy where we engaged over 100 groups across the state. Our staff developed an EJ team with diversity, equity and inclusion training to really create a long-term, multi-year process to get to the point of equitable access for all.

We have enshrined in our California Constitution and in the Coastal Act the right of all people to access the beaches and our shorelines. The policy now—similar to the equity policy that Metro adopted—formalizes that commitment, and help us look at land use and the coast from a perspective that's inclusive of all California. I think the overlay with that work in the Promise Zone  creates more sustainable and resilient communities that look at historic inequality, challenges around environmental justice for communities of color, and capitalizes on the state's interest in investing in solutions and redressing some of these wrongs.

This marriage of social justice, civil rights, and land use helps to inform our work so that it more comprehensive, holistic, and grounded in justice, and so SLATE-Z can really bring resources to create thriving, vibrant communities where residents are free to truly live out their maximum God-given human potential.

"SLATE-Z can really bring resources to create thriving, vibrant communities where residents are free to really live out their maximum God given human potential." —Effie Turnbull Sanders