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The Importance of Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

Affordable housing near transit is a focus for many in the region, including the Cleveland Fed.

The need for and the barriers involved in developing affordable housing near public transit were major points of discussion for more than 110 people from the Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Philadelphia regions at a daylong event in late August.

Convened by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD) Symposium featured researchers and practitioners who shared models currently employed elsewhere in the country. They also discussed what can be done locally to include equitability in transit-focused development.

The concept of equitable transit-oriented development incorporates fundamental tenets of community development such as mixed-income residential development and greater access to employment opportunities. Much of the discussion focused on affordable housing near transit, as it tends to be more expensive than similar housing in less transit-rich areas.

Speaking to the need for ETOD, Michael Spotts, a senior analyst at Enterprise Community Partners, cited significant housing affordability challenges in the United States. According to Harvard University’s The State of the Nation’s Housing 2016, 11.4 million renter households are severely cost burdened, spending 50 percent or more household income on housing costs. Researchers project that this number will increase 11 percent by 2025. Such housing-affordability challenges are exacerbated in transit-served communities, where demand is higher for housing and drives up rents and housing prices. “There are affordable housing subsidies, but it often isn’t enough,” Spotts noted. “Households are still burdened by unaffordable housing and transit costs. We need to think about ETOD because job accessibility is important to economic growth.”

There are barriers to ETOD, however. Spotts pointed to myriad regulatory and cultural hurdles for development that often don’t coincide with actual demand and single-use zoning requirements. Communities have found ways to overcome such hurdles, including efforts to adopt proactive collaborative strategies:

  • Alignment of new and existing transit service
  • Reformation of municipal and zoning codes, in part to assist affordable housing development
  • Expansion in the availability of capital for projects
  • Enhancements in site access and viability

Dace West, executive director of Mile High Connects, shared information regarding ETOD efforts in the Denver, Colorado, region. Once again referencing the unaffordable cost of housing and transportation for low- and moderate-income households, she noted that Denver’s “housing prices have increased 20 percent, while wages increased only 3 percent, leading to even greater affordability disparities.”

In response, the Denver region regularly convenes a broad coalition of more than 300 stakeholders across multiple sectors to discuss and strategize ways to address affordability, workforce issues, and transit service routes. West reported that one of the most significant resources Denver has at its disposal is a transit-oriented development fund—created with the support of foundations, banks, and investors—dedicated to the creation and preservation of affordable housing.

Most members of a panel comprising practitioners local to the Pittsburgh area expressed a desire to have dedicated affordable housing creation, similar to the program utilized in the Denver region, and highlighted the need to engage developers and stakeholder groups as early in the development process as possible.

In delivering the program’s keynote address, Dan Bartholomay, chief executive officer of Rail~Volution, a national nonprofit focused on the links between land use, transit, and development, stressed the importance of collaboration and bold leadership in the ETOD approach.

To that end, he urged audience members to think about equitable transit-oriented development on 5 levels: region, corridor, community, station, and local. Such levels will, in turn, help practitioners think about their regions as “a set of destinations” and help them consider the scale, value, and feasibility of projects.

“Pittsburgh has great energy and a lot of capable organizations, so there’s a huge opportunity to align resources for ETOD impact,” Bartholomay added, urging the Pittsburgh region to “think big” and focus on the outcomes of its work.

Sum and substance: Many are coming together in this region and beyond to discuss funding, strategies, and ways to clear hurdles to achieve equitable transit-oriented development.

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