Organizing for Inclusive TOD

Large-scale and small-scale transit-oriented development projects are popping up everywhere around the country, and in many places advocates are working to include affordable housing and other community priorities in the mix from the start.

TOD Out of Reach?

Redeveloping around transit is a big priority across the country. But will those who need access to transit most be able to benefit from these new transit-oriented developments? Studies indicate that additional transit and TOD often increase property values dramatically.

The Regional Plan Association, which was involved in much of the planning of New Jersey’s now-axed regional transit proposal, Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), commissioned a study that found that home values within two miles of the 12 lines that would have benefited from ARC would have increased by an average of $19,000.

This means without specific affordability provisions built in displacement is a concern. A 2010 study by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy looked at 42 neighborhoods first served by rail between 1990 and 2000, and found than in a majority of them, “housing stock became more expensive, neighborhood residents wealthier and vehicle ownership more common.”

And yet, access to transit is a crucial component of true affordability. The Center for Neighborhood Technology says that under the traditional definition of housing affordability, which is 30 percent or less of household income spent on housing, 7 out of 10 U.S. neighborhoods are considered affordable to a household earning the area median income. But in almost all metro regions of the country, when the definition of affordability is expanded to include both housing and transportation costs — combined, they should come in below 45 percent of income — the number of affordable neighborhoods decreases significantly, to 40 percent, a loss of 48,000 neighborhoods whose combined housing and transportation costs stress the average family’s budget. For low-income families, of course, the number of affordable neighborhoods is even lower.

And some of the transit-accessible affordable housing that does exist is in jeopardy. According to a recent study jointly released by AARP, Reconnecting America, and National Housing Trust, in the next five years the country could see as many as 160,000 renters in 20 metro areas losing their affordable apartments near transit because the contracts on their privately-owned HUD-subsidized rental units are due to expire. The renewed popularity of urban living means that properties in walkable neighborhoods near transit have increased in value, making it more likely that property owners will opt out of the HUD program and convert the housing to market rate.

Of course, the good news is that the surges in value and the new development around transit should provide a window to incorporate truly affordable units into new vibrant, walkable neighborhoods. Giving low-income people access to high-amenity neighborhoods with affordable transit is not only important in terms of equal opportunity and fair housing. It can also be important for the success of the transit investment itself. Lower income households are the most loyal and consistent transit users; the Dukakis Center study showed that if too many of them are displaced from a station area, transit ridership actually can fail to hit expected levels.

The Obama administration is working in this ballpark, at least, having committed itself to the joint HUD-DOT-EPA Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI), which aims to better coordinate federal transportation and housing investments.

In October SCI awarded $68 million in Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants to 62 local and regional partnerships. Although to inclusionary housing advocates’ disappointment the process didn’t include any specific requirements or points in the grant process for committing to affordable housing around transit lines, there is hope that looking at the two issues jointly will lead to such inclusions anyway.

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Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.

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