Uncovering JAPA

Can Transit-Oriented Developments Include Affordable Development?

Transit-oriented developments (TODs) present significant potential as centers of accessibility, connectivity, and the augmentation of transit ridership. However, the absence of affordable housing frequently mars these developments. What are the impediments to affordable housing construction in TOD zones?

In "Can TODs Include Affordable Housing? The Southern California Experience'' (Journal of American Planning Association, Vol. 90, No. 2) Ajay Garde, Huê-Tâm Jamme, Benjamin Toney, Deepak Bahl, and Tridib Banerjee concentrate on TOD zones within communities with underserved populations in Los Angeles and Orange counties to pinpoint barriers to and prospects for affordable housing.

The study centers on 10 transit stations in Los Angeles, examining TOD Specific Plans and interviewing key stakeholders to highlight barriers and opportunities for equitable transit communities.

Barriers to Affordable Housing in TOD

While TOD specific plans permit higher-density developments, they often lack a clear focus on affordable housing or a cohesive vision for inclusive transit communities. Many affordable housing initiatives involve high-density projects, often facing opposition in public hearings due to NIMBYism sentiments.

Developer requests for density bonuses to include affordable housing can stall project approvals. Simply allowing higher-density developments within TODs doesn't guarantee affordable housing; it can be challenging due to competition from market-rate housing.

Barriers mentioned in the interviews included onerous financing requirements and uncertainties in the approval process. Developers highlighted the challenge of securing patchwork financing comprising complex tax credits, subsidies, and grants.

Piecemealing project financing is time-consuming and sometimes costlier than developing market-rate housing through conventional financing. Interviewees identified delays and uncertainties in the entitlement process of affordable housing projects.

Some developers expressed frustration with the performance criteria required for affordable housing developments. These criteria include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, meeting sustainable design standards, mitigating indoor pollution near freeways, enhancing energy efficiency, and prioritizing local hiring.

Legislative Pathways

Despite these challenges, the study identifies significant opportunities. Recent legislative initiatives in California, such as AB 2011 and AB 2097, aim to streamline regulations and incentivize affordable housing in TOD areas. The state laws offer opportunities to develop affordable housing, by right, on commercially zoned properties in TOD areas.

The authors recommend that local governments embrace these state laws and update their TOD specific plans and housing elements to require affordable housing in TOD areas. By building on the institutional framework and updating specific plans, local governments can better facilitate inclusive transit communities.

Recommendations for Equitable Transit Communities

  • Local governments must create a policy environment conducive to affordable housing in TOD specific plan areas.
  • Financially self-sustaining lead organizations are needed to coordinate affordable housing efforts among local governments engaged in TOD planning.
  • Specific plans should prioritize affordable housing as an integral component of TOD development, rather than merely a possibility.
  • Local governments should minimize transaction costs for developers committed to building affordable housing in TODs by clarifying approval and permit processes.
  • Policies at local, regional, and state levels should focus on providing incentives and funding for affordable housing in TOD areas.

The study's implications extend beyond California, resonating with broader debates on affordable housing and transit-oriented development. The authors underscore the need for innovative approaches and coordinated efforts to address the housing crisis and promote sustainable, equitable communities.

The inclusion of affordable housing in TODs demands bolstering institutional capacity for regional collaboration beyond reliance on state density bonus laws, RHNA allocations, and local government-specific plans and housing elements.

The development of TODs in politically fragmented regions like southern California makes clear the need for a lead organization to procure affordable housing investments and strengthen the housing–transportation nexus. This emphasizes the importance of regional collaboration in addressing housing challenges and integrating transportation planning with housing policies to create more accessible and equitable communities.

Top image: MattGush

Grant Holub-Moorman is a master's in city and regional planning student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

May 9, 2024

By Grant Holub-Moorman