Can Transit-Oriented Affordable Housing Boost Economic Mobility and Minimize Displacement?

by Oriya Cohen

Public transportation provides critical connections to jobs, education, and health care, especially for low-income families without a vehicle. But improving transit access can be a double-edged sword. Although low-income riders are the most dependent and reliable transit users, investments in public transportation can increase land values and attract new development catered to high-income earners, ultimately displacing the households that would benefit most from improved access.

To slow this trend, transit improvements should be paired with affordable housing investments. This strategy is a central component of equitable Transportation Oriented Development (e-TOD), and cities across the United States, each with varying levels of transit infrastructure, are leveraging this model to minimize displacement, foster inclusive development, and boost economic mobility.

Mitigating displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area

In the San Francisco Bay Area, rising housing costs are displacing low- and middle-income families to the more affordable suburbs, but increased transportation costs are still leaving families severely cost burdened. To help alleviate this pressure and boost the supply of affordable housing in transit-accessible corridors, state leaders passed legislation providing Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) with zoning exemptions and expedited approval processes to build transit-oriented, mixed-income housing on BART-owned land. The law requires 30 percent of units in all new developments to be offered at below market rents, with priority for very low– (less than 50 percent of the area median income) and low- (50 to 80 percent of the area median income) income households. In a region where the cost and availability of land are barriers to development, access to new public land can make all the difference for lowering costs.  With the state’s backing, BART is working with local and regional partners to develop new housing that will help existing residents avoid displacement and help displaced residents find housing they can afford near transit lines that connect them to opportunity.

Facilitating inclusive development in the Seattle region

As the Seattle region grows, Sound Transit is expanding their light rail to help keep the region connected, and they’re using e-TOD principles to make sure it serves those who need it most. Following mandates from state legislators, Sound Transit adopted an affordable housing strategy that leveraged the surplus land around the expansion. Their “80-80-80” policy requires 80 percent of suitable surplus land to be reserved for affordable housing developers who will reserve 80 percent of units for people earning 80 percent or less than the area median income. The legislation gives Sound Transit the authority to gift the land or sell it at below market value to affordable housing developers. The policy helps ensure that Seattle’s increased transit lines will drive inclusive development in the region.

Boosting economic mobility in Columbus

Columbus, Ohio, is undergoing rapid population growth, but as America’s largest city with a bus-only transit system, transportation is a formidable barrier to economic mobility. To help bridge the spatial mismatch between low-income job seekers on the south side and job opportunities on the north side, Columbus transit agencies are exploring innovative ways to expand transit services for those who need it most and to boost overall ridership, from free bus passes and circulators to autonomous shuttles. Paired with the launch of an affordable housing trust fund and zoning changes that allowed two new centrally located affordable housing developments to move forward, Columbus is leveraging e-TOD principles to ensure the city’s economic recovery creates ladders of opportunity for all its residents.

Toward transportation equity

As the San Francisco, Seattle, and Columbus regions demonstrate how connecting affordable housing to transit can create a wide range of social and economic benefits that drive equitable development, policymakers, advocates, and developers should also recognize the historical imperative of pursuing this strategy.

American transportation and housing policies, from the construction of highways through the hearts of low-income communities to the discriminatory housing policies that kept communities of color out of the suburbs these highways were designed to serve, disproportionately severed low-income communities and communities of color from opportunity. The effects of these policies live on today.  In 2015, nearly 20 percent of black families did not have access to a car, compared with only 6.5 percent of white families, but federal transportation policies still prioritize highway expansion over transit improvements.

Future transportation improvements should be designed to benefit these communities, and pairing transit with affordable housing could be an effective first step toward transportation equity.

Photo by Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock