The Denver region has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the country in shaping a more sustainable, livable and affordable metropolis. The public elected to invest over $6 billion into one of the largest rapid transit systems in the country, including 122 miles of light rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit (1). The return on this investment will be measured not just by how many riders the system attracts, but by the social and economic backgrounds of those riders. Public transit cannot become luxury good only available to those who can afford to live near it. We need to demand smart and aggressive public policy to ensure housing around transit stations remains affordable to a wide range of people. Otherwise, we will continue to compound the inequities that stifle the social mobility of so many of our citizens.
Denver city planners and politicians have coalesced around a vision for transit-oriented development (TOD) around the hundreds of new FasTracks stations (2). By coordinating transportation and land use policy, TOD is a viable and promising alternative to automobile-oriented, inefficient suburban sprawl. TOD policy can shape the form of communities through planning efforts, zoning changes, and public financing mechanisms that all seek to incentivize dense housing and shared retail amenities close to the station (3). By enabling more people to live close to the station, and providing access to other daily needs nearby, TOD makes riding transit more attractive and economical. The benefits go beyond higher ridership, however. TOD can alleviate congestion, reduce air pollution, enhance transit operations, and improve physical health by encouraging walking and biking (4).
The appeal of TOD is not lost on real estate developers. Their profit-maximizing motives, if unregulated by public policy, will result in transit-oriented housing being within the economic prospects of only the affluent. Both demand-side and supply-side pressures that make it probable that housing around transit will be very expensive (5). First, the high demand for TOD has already driven investors to buy up land near future stations. Many of these developers break up the land into smaller plots to roll up higher overall profits, which makes it more difficult to build dense housing. Land prices are rising as speculation about future returns increases. High land prices means that developers will have to build high-priced housing that can generate profitable returns.
Many outdated and unnecessary public policies and financial practices inhibit the supply of high density, transit-oriented housing. Zoning policy often does not support this type of housing around station areas, so rezoning or lengthy permitting processes add to developer costs. High parking requirements are designed for an automobile-dependent environment, so they need to be lowered or eliminated to reflect the reality that transit-oriented housing attracts families with fewer or no cars. One structured parking space can cost over $20,000, so high parking requirements are extremely prohibitive costs for developers (6). Also, developers, whether public or private, don’t have the capacity to buy land at a lower price and hold it until a station is built.
There are two critical reasons why we should care that housing near transit remain affordable to most people. First, housing and transportation costs can easily displace other crucial family needs. Housing and transportation are the two highest line items in every family budget. And they are usually fixed for a significant period of time, as they are tied to long-term decisions about where to work and live. If housing and transportation costs rise too high, families have to cut back on the things they desperately need to be healthy and thriving, like education, healthcare and quality food. Second, these two costs are inextricably linked. Due to high population growth and a robust economy, housing near core job centers is often too expensive for many families, so they “drive to affordability” by living in distant suburbs. Unfortunately, the consequential increase in transportation costs from driving further or owning more cars often negates savings on housing. The inverse scenario occurs for those who choose to stay close to the city where housing costs are more expensive. Affordable TOD housing is the only solution that addresses both the transportation and housing sides of this equation.
To make affordable TOD housing a reality, we must demand three public policy efforts. First, a TOD Acquisition Fund should be established to provide the financing necessary for developers to purchase and hold land at prices that enable affordable housing (7). Commercial banks will not engage in these long-term loan agreements that are needed to reserve land around future station areas. Low-interest, long-term public loans should be made available to developers who agree to build affordable housing once the station is nearing operation. Second, RTD should directly engage in joint development with private investors under the powers vested in transit operators by the Federal Transit Administration (8). There are significant, quantifiable benefits to developing housing near transit. RTD needs to recognize that buying and holding land for future mixed-income housing is in the best interest of the public and their transit operations. Lastly, city planners need to completely overhaul the planning, zoning and permitting structures of TOD areas to incentivize dense, affordable, mixed-use housing in station areas. Every planning tool should be employed to make this type of development easier and less costly.
The opportunity to fundamentally alter a regional metropolis into a more equitable and sustainable form does not come often. Denver has embraced a vision of a transit-oriented future that remedies some of the immense public problems associated with excessive driving. But the land around our new transit stations is scarce. It is imperative we do not let this valuable resource go to waste by allowing only the highest earners to cash in on the benefits of living near transit. Every Denver citizen contributes to FasTracks through sales taxes, so every Denver citizen should have the opportunity to fully utilize the system. We can only call this public investment a success if everyone gets a share of the public benefits.
1. RTD (2013)
2. Denver Regional Council of Governments (2013)
3. Cervero, et al (2002) p. 45
4. Cervero, et al (2002) p. 28
5. Belzer, et al (2007) p. 25
6. Belzer, et al (2007) p. 26
7. Belzer, et al (2007) p. 27
8. Pollack and Prater (2013) p. 16
Belzer D. et al (2007). The Case for Mixed-Income Transit-Oriented Development in the Denver Region. Center for Transit-Oriented Development. February 2007.
Cervero, R., Ferrell, C., & Murphy, S. (2002). Transit-oriented development and joint development in the United States: A literature review. TCRP Research Results Digest, (52).
Denver Regional Council of Governments (2013). Transit-Oriented Development. Available at: http://tod.drcog.org/
Pollack and Prater (2013). Filling the Financing Gap for Equitable Transit-Oriented Development: Lessons from Atlanta, Denver, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Twin Cities. Enterprise Community Partners and Living Cities Initiative. April 2013.
Regional Transportation District (RTD) (2013). What is FasTracks? Available at: http://www.rtd-fastracks.com/main_26