An Interview with Dace West, Network Director of Mile High Connects

Regions currently investing in transit system expansions are faced with an incredible opportunity to help create equitable communities near transit that improve low-income individuals’ access to affordable housing, jobs, health care, child care and other services. These efforts are often known as _equitable transit-oriented development _ (or equitable TOD ).

At Living Cities, we believe that private and philanthropic investment capital can be a powerful tool in helping move equitable TOD efforts forward. We’ve also learned that in order to leverage capital investment in this way, regions need a supportive ecosystem that performs the functions required to effectively absorb and then deploy investment capital for social good.

In partnership with the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF) and Enterprise Community Partners, we recently co-hosted regional capital absorption workshops to better understand how resources, policies and practices affect the deployment of capital in support of equitable TOD in each region.

To learn more about how these efforts land on the ground, I reached out to Dace West, Network Director of Mile High Connects, a regional collaborative of foundations, banks, and non-profits committed to ensuring that Denver’s transit system expansion increases access to affordable housing, good jobs, quality schools, and essential services for all people. In this role, Dace has been closely involved in the Denver region’s capital absorption and local equitable TOD efforts.

Below are some insights from our exchange.

What is the current opportunity in the Denver region?

Denver is a fast-growing region making significant investments in public infrastructure, including a $7.4 billion dollar comprehensive transit expansion plan to build 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit. This investment has created a once in a lifetime opportunity to put in place the structures, policies and resources to ensure that we deploy capital in a coordinated and effective manner and achieve targeted outcomes for traditionally underserved communities.

Denver also enjoys a strong culture of collaboration, both through regional political coordination that occurs through the Metro Mayor’s Caucus and in cross-sector partnerships through Mile High Connects, the Denver Transit Oriented Development Fund, the Colorado Fresh Food Financing Fund, and the Eagle P3 transit expansion project.

In part because of the role Mile High Connects plays in bringing together pivotal actors from all sectors throughout the region with an interest in creating equitable TOD, the Denver region has a unique opportunity to leverage its massive investment in transit to create lasting and meaningful change for our region’s low-income communities and communities of color.

What are some of the challenges you face in implementing this equitable TOD vision?

Compared to many peer regions, we have fewer dedicated state and local sources for community investment and often rely on increasingly scarce federal resources. Colorado is also limited by a number of state laws and tax structures such as TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment that inhibit our ability to utilize common resources like urban renewal, inclusionary zoning and bond issuances to finance community investment.

Our key stakeholders from non-profits, government, philanthropy and community development lenders generally agree on a shared set of high-level priorities. Yet the lack of stable funding for community development from state, regional, and local sources often drives leaders to operate in siloes, competing for an increasingly small pot of available resources.

Did the capital absorption workshop help you think differently about moving equitable TOD efforts forward? If so, how?

Approximately 50 leaders from the Denver region gathered for the intensive one-day workshop with a goal of identifying concrete, practical actions that people who cared about the future of the Denver region could take to strengthen its capacity to attract and deploy investment capital for public good.

Our equitable TOD work in recent years has been more focused on research, community engagement, policy advocacy and philanthropic investment. The workshop sparked a dialogue on deepening and expanding our thinking around new forms of capital investment that can grow our resources and help us realize our larger implementation goals around equitable TOD.

What were your biggest takeaways for improving the Denver region’s capacity to channel investment toward equitable TOD?

While equitable TOD deals occur across the region, they are driven primarily by funding sources rather than shared priorities, which has led to both a lack of coordination between public, nonprofit and private sector actors and a failure to implement of a thoughtful and cohesive regional strategy. This realization helped us see that the Denver region would benefit from a lead organization serving as a catalytic broker to support regional alignment. This broker could become the holder and steward of the region’s shared priorities and would specifically work to align actors and resources toward those priorities.

We also recognized that there was a lack of comprehensive data that could be accessed and utilized by the community around both the funding sources that could support equitable TOD and the pipeline of investable opportunities. Collecting and maintaining a robust set of information across the region to fully understand and be able to collectively assess community assets, resources and opportunities was something we identified as necessary to making strategic decisions that would fully leverage resources and create impact.

With that said, we recognized that we have a limited window of opportunity provided by the transit infrastructure investments in the Denver region. To not lose this opportunity, we should move forward with a few good projects, iron out imperfections as we go, measure impact and returns, and begin building momentum organically while simultaneously developing plans.

What will the region do differently as a result of these insights?

Through the workshop, we decided on three targeted priorities to help align capital investment around our equitable TOD efforts.

The first is developing a “capital markets map” wherein we begin to deeply analyze the sources of funding available for affordable housing, community development and supportive services at the local, state and federal levels and from the public, private and philanthropic sectors. Understanding the size, availability, timing and restrictions on these funding sources will allow us to more thoughtfully identify regular opportunities for braiding and leveraging sources. We are simultaneously embarking on an effort to create and maintain a collective investment pipeline document that can help us all understand the big picture of regional investment in infrastructure, real estate, and community development.

We have also initiated an Impact Investing Learning Network comprised of foundations, impact investors, community development lenders, and other double-bottom-line investors to align resources and prioritize investments and outcomes. We had our first convening of this group last month and the conversation highlighted how much appetite there is for exploring the nuance of this type of investment, particularly in teasing out how to meet both a social and financial return.

Finally, we plan to work with municipalities and community agencies to develop an Impact Investing Annual Report Card for the built environment in the Denver region. This would highlight investments and development efforts in the region that further equitable TOD and track the outcomes from these development investments. The report cards would also look at a set of impact indicators over time.

Living Cities looks forward to learning more from Mile High Connects and the Denver region’s efforts to strengthen their capacity to absorb and deploy capital for community investment. We will continue to share lessons learned from their work and from other regions about channeling private capital toward the implementation of equitable TOD plans.

_ Photo credit to Larry Johnson, under Creative Commons License_