Transit-Accessible Affordable Housing: An Oxymoron?

Jan 4, 2017

The Metro is growing — and with it, housing developments along the new stops that are raising home values.

The new developments have proven an economic boon to many, as studies show that areas near transit stops have higher property values, which can rejuvenate neighborhoods. But such development also risks turning easy access to mass transit into something only the wealthy can afford — a major concern when those who truly depend on transit for their livelihoods get priced out of the area.

Just look at the $1.5 million townhouses going up around new Purple Line stops, as noted by The Washington Post. The paper notes that Maryland officials pitched the billion-dollar expanded light rail project as a boon to “lower-income, transit-dependent residents.”

But that’s often not the case with these projects, unless local organization push hard for affordable housing options.

“A new transit station can set in motion a cycle of unintended consequences in which core transit users—such as renters and low income households—are priced out in favor of higher-income, car-owning residents who are less likely to use public transit for commuting,” according to research by Northeastern University.

It’s a Catch-22 — many who need affordable housing might prosper more with easy access to public transit, so they don’t need to rely on a car (and its associated expenses), or on driving long distances for work. Proximity to reliable transit arguably has a larger quality-of-life impact on lower-income families than on higher-income families, who can afford cars for work transportation and have job flexibility wherever they live. And yet, fewer low-income families can afford to live in those easy-access areas.

“We believe that the risk that transit investment could catalyze undesirable neighborhood change is substantial enough that it needs to be managed whenever transit investments or improvements are being planned,” notes the Northeastern study.

The research of two University of Maryland experts supports those findings. Their work, published in the journal Housing Policy Debate in April, involved a series of models that predicted trends in housing prices of new transit-oriented development.

“Supply-side policies, such as requiring a percentage of new construction to be low-income housing, have more effect on mitigating transit-induced gentrification than programs like rental vouchers,” the study found. “The results also show that affordable housing policies targeted towards transit were significantly more effective than a region-wide approach.”

In other words, yes, the costs rose. But there are potential solutions. Targeting those areas for special zoning and requiring affordable components can also reap large benefits without unduly burdening the project, or home values and affordability throughout the region. But it takes an organized push by local community leaders and organizations.

Let’s go back to that Purple Line project in Montgomery County.

“So far, the funding is only there to build the [Purple Line] system, not to go beyond the tracks to address housing or economic development,” Clarence J. Snuggs, the director of Montgomery County’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs, tells the Post.

But the high-end townhouse project is also an example of how everyone can benefit when community leaders take initiative and consider the needs of everyone in the community. The townhouses will be built on land that once held affordable housing. The land sale enabled Montgomery Housing Opportunities Commission to build more housing next to the townhouse, with a net gain of 22 new affording-housing apartments.

It may not solve all of the affordability issues in the area, but it’s a start.