The Transit Factor in Affordable Housing
When it comes to the value of real estate, nothing says it like the well-known mantra: location, location, location. Homes that are located in a thriving community—close to stable employment, top-rated schools, recreation, and services—are typically worth more than homes lacking in those areas. But, what about transportation? Certainly, homes located in close proximity to desired amenities are in greater demand than those farther away, but how do alternative transportation options affect neighborhood development?
Providing diverse transportation options, including walking, biking, bus, and rail, are critical components of a truly integrated community. A fully modal transportation plan allows residents of all incomes and lifestyles to participate equitably in both work and leisure. New urbanism and transit-oriented development (TOD) are examples of recent planning concepts that foster this type of transportation freedom.
New urbanism is a movement in neighborhood design which employs some of the best features of old urban areas—particularly those areas designed before the advent of the automobile—while still accommodating motor vehicles. Many successful neighborhoods built in the last 20 years utilize new urbanist strategies, such as narrow lots, rear-facing garages with alley access, large front porches that are closer to the sidewalk, narrow streets to slow traffic, and close-in shopping and schools for added convenience. These communities prioritize walkability and aesthetics over vehicle travel, in hopes of reducing traffic.
This photo illustrates a functioning alley with rear access garages, a common
design feature of new urbanism.
Transit-oriented development (TOD) also maintains walkability as a primary goal, but, as the name implies, incorporates design strategies that promote the use of public transit. TODs are typically located within one-half mile of a permanent transit station, are high in density, feature attractive public spaces, and offer a reduced number of parking spaces to encourage vehicle independence.
Some units at this transit-oriented development in Pasadena,
California, bridge directly over the Gold Line commuter rail.
Cities throughout the country are taking note of the importance—and market success—of new urbanism and TOD. Mueller, a redevelopment of a former airport in East Austin, applies many new urbanist principles that have contributed to its success. Since construction began in 2007, Mueller continues to outpace the real estate market in sales, even as the economy weakened. Orenco Station, a TOD in Hillsboro, Oregon, has achieved great success as well, increasing housing density in a largely suburban area and boosting light rail transit use. Residents of Orenco Station not only use transit more often than other area residents, they tend to walk and bike more as well.
More than just for convenience, though, transit-connected communities aim to make housing affordable for families who might otherwise be forced to absorb the costs of owning a vehicle. According to Reconnecting America’s Center for Transit-Oriented Development, “while the average household spends 19 percent of its income on transportation, households with good access to transit spend just 9 percent.” Transportation spending could be as high as 55 percent for very-low-income families without transit access. The potential savings of living in transit-oriented development could help some families transition from renting to homeownership; and, in extreme cases it could be the difference between homelessness and housing stability.
While developers are seeing the light when it comes to new urbanist and transit-oriented development, implementing these types of projects is not easy. According to a report by Reconnecting America:
- “Land prices around stations are high or increase because of speculation once a new transit line is announced.
- Affordable housing developers don’t have the capital to acquire land before the prices go up and then hold it until it’s ready to develop.
- Funding for building affordable housing is limited.
- Mixed-income and mixed-use projects require complex financing structures.
- Sites for TOD projects often require land assembly and rezoning, which can lead to lengthy acquisition and permitting processes, which increase development costs.
- Parking requirements for TOD are unnecessarily high, which also drives up costs.
- Community opposition to density and affordable housing is hard to overcome.”
Several cities which have pioneered in TOD provide valuable lessons which can be gleaned by others hoping to offer transportation flexibility to potential homebuyers. Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, created a TOD Response Team which helps developers navigate the complexities of permitting, public improvements, and financial assistance. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area emphasized the importance of good coordination between “…city staff, [TOD] corridor residents and the private sector…” And, Portland, Oregon noted that balancing affordability needs with amenities is vital, as is creating incentives for both for-profit and not-for-profit builders to develop housing that is affordable.
Waco is still behind other US cities when it comes to developing neighborhoods around transit, partially because the city does not have a fixed transit system, such as light rail. With the Greater Downtown Master Plan now being finalized, however, Waco has a tremendous opportunity to be proactive in its approach to TOD in the coming years. Chris Evilia, Director of Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, echoed the need for more TOD in the area.
“We don’t have the resources to ensure adequate mobility from where people are to all the services they need,” Evilia said. “With 1 in 3 jobs located along the Highway 6 corridor, and the affordable housing primarily in East, North, and South Waco, we need to correct that disconnect.”
With a sustainable development plan also on the horizon for the six-county area surrounding Waco, the hope is to close the gap between where people live and where jobs are located, all in an effort to restore and preserve both our quality of life and of our environment. “If we can get people to take short trips using something other than a car, it helps a lot [in reducing emissions],” said Evilia. Considering the role of transit in affordable housing could just be the ticket to that goal.
(This was an article I wrote for the September/October 2010 issue of Housing Highlights, the City of Waco Housing & Community Development’s bi-monthly newsletter)