Affordable housing already exists near transit—but without action it will be lost.
As the U.S. economy slows, the likelihood of significant federal or local investment in new mass transit diminishes. But low- and moderate-income families still stand to benefit from affordable housing near transit through reduced commuting expenses and improved access to jobs, schools and other opportunities. While robust new growth and new modes of transit are not out of the question, the future is more likely to be framed by redevelopment near existing transit stations and routes. Indeed, the rental market has already begun to grow tighter in communities near existing transit. This in turn will lead to slowly escalating property values, making it more difficult to ensure long-term housing affordability, especially if we wait to act.
Thousands of existing affordable apartments—privately owned, both HUD-subsidized and unsubsidized—are located near transit and are at risk of being lost as property values rise. In 2009, AARP released a report co-authored by the National Housing Trust and Reconnecting America demonstrating that more than 250,000 privately owned, HUD-subsidized apartments exist within walking distance to quality transit. However, nearly 150,000 of these apartments were covered by federal housing contracts set to expire over the next five years, raising the possibility that owners may opt out of the government programs as values rise.
These apartments house a very vulnerable population. The average annual income of residents in HUD subsidized housing is less than $12,000, approximately 66 percent of residents are elderly or disabled, and most are people of color. Low-income people and people of color are as much as four times more likely to rely on public transit to get to work than middle-class whites. Preserving this housing is critical to maintaining access to jobs and resources for these disadvantaged populations.
In an environment where resources are scant, preservation becomes a critical priority, as well as an attractive option. Preserving an existing home is significantly less expensive than constructing new affordable housing. Rehabilitating an existing affordable apartment can cost one-third less than building a new apartment. In more expensive communities with high land costs, the cost of building new affordable housing could be as much as double the cost of preserving existing housing.
Ironically, the economic downturn gives us an opportunity to safeguard affordable housing by taking action ahead of expected property price appreciation near transit.
Michael Bodaken is the president of the National Housing Trust.
Todd Nedwick is the assistant director of public policy for the National Housing Trust.
- Preserving Affordable Housing near Transit: Case Studies from Atlanta, Denver, Seattle and Washington, D.C.