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Some states and cities are adopting policies to promote dense development near bus and rail lines. But it can be a hard sell politically and sometimes has unintended consequences.
Urbanists and city planners have long pushed to get more homes built near transit lines, seeing this as a way to tackle some of the most pressing problems cities face, like expanding affordable housing, reducing traffic and vehicle emissions and addressing the racial inequities that are embedded in the layout of many metro areas.
Recently, policymakers in places like Massachusetts, California and Chicago have made strides to promote this kind of transit-oriented development. But building support for such programs can be politically fraught at the local level, often drawing opposition from residents of single-family neighborhoods who are wary of dense development being added near their homes.
Massachusetts is now forging ahead with a significant transit-oriented development program.
Officials there are working on rules to increase permitted housing near Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority stations in the Boston area. The guidelines, now being finalized as part of a broader economic development law enacted last year, require “MBTA Communities” to have at least one zoning district that permits multifamily housing near transit stops.
The rules call for varying levels of housing density for communities with different levels of transit service. But as a baseline, all communities must have at least 50 contiguous acres within half a mile of a transit stop, where the minimum housing density is 15 units per acre. The state has been careful to signal that the rules are not a mandate for cities to produce a certain amount of new housing—only to allow for it in their zoning codes.
In a webinar for MBTA communities held in January, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said that increasing density in those areas to even 10 units an acre would mean 250,000 new housing units in the state that would be near transit lines.
“This is simply good housing policy, good climate policy, good transit policy, and good local economic development policy to have more housing near the places we go to every day,” Kennealy said. (Massachusetts officials did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Programs to promote transit-oriented development can be complicated though, sometimes resulting in undesirable consequences, like displacing minority or lower-income residents.
Take Chicago. The city implemented its first transit-oriented development ordinance in 2013, successfully incentivizing lots of new development. But a 2020 review of the ordinance found that 90% of the transit-oriented projects were concentrated in just a few neighborhoods. And worse, the neighborhoods that had the most projects were gaining white population but losing Black residents—a sign of “displacement patterns,” according to a city report.
In response, the city is working on a so-called equitable transit-oriented policy plan that is meant to allow “all people regardless of income, race, ethnicity, age, gender, immigration status or ability to experience the benefits of dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development near transit hubs,” according to the plan’s description.
To advance the program’s goals, the city has selected a set of pilot projects—these include affordable housing, a community-owned grocery store, and a public art and placemaking project that aims to improve conditions for pedestrians at a series of crosswalks near a commuter rail station. The projects will receive special funding and technical assistance from the city.
Marisa Novara, Chicago’s housing commissioner, says the new program is meant to benefit community-oriented projects in neighborhoods that haven’t seen as much interest from developers. Those neighborhoods need more than affordable housing, which on its own can often take many years to develop when federal funding and tax credits are involved, she said.
“Communities are more than houses, and in a lot of places, especially those that have experienced retail redlining, a lot of folks are saying, ‘I can’t get to things in my community that other people can walk to,’” Novara said. “We do see the creation of mixed-use spaces near transit as our ability to fill some of that void.”
In Atlanta, City Council member Amir Farokhi’s recent effort to permit more transit-oriented housing was defeated in a council committee in December. Farokhi had introduced a series of bills last year that would have eliminated minimum parking requirements, permitted more accessory dwelling units around the city, and allowed for multifamily housing on some single-family lots near transit stations.
The Atlanta Department of City Planning has officially recognized single-family zoning as a cause of persistent racial segregation in the city. Researchers have demonstrated that racial discrimination shaped the city’s transportation network as well. And Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms backed Farokhi’s proposals.
Even so, the bills failed to clear the committee amid opposition from many neighborhoods. Homeowner resistance to denser housing often cuts across partisan divides, Farokhi noted. “History has proven that with single-family homeowners across the country, their initial reaction is oftentimes to resist even mild increases in density,” he said.
Despite the rejection, Farkohi hasn’t given up on the proposals. “I think these zoning policy improvements continue to be on the table and I hope people revisit them,” he said.
Mixed Progress in California
Other jurisdictions have struggled to promote more transit-oriented development. In California, which has arguably the worst housing shortage in the country, some state lawmakers have repeatedly sought to force cities to allow denser housing near transit stops. While statewide efforts to mandate local transit-oriented upzoning have so far failed, some incentive programs at the state and local levels have shown results.
In 2016, Los Angeles voters approved Measure JJJ, geared toward promoting more affordable housing in the city. In accordance with that measure, the L.A. City Planning Department created the Transit-Oriented Communities program, which allows developers to build taller, denser buildings near railway stations and bus stops when they include affordable units.
L.A.’s program has faced some neighborhood opposition, planning officials say, and survived some lawsuits as well. But it has also become “one of the most significant ways we create housing in the city,” according to a city spokesperson.
In the past three years, the program has become one of the most popular “entitlement” programs for developers seeking to build new housing in the city. The planning department has approved more than 22,000 units through the program since 2017, the spokesperson said. Around a quarter of those units are affordable for low-income renters, according to city reports.
Massachusetts officials are hoping the new policies there will spur enough construction near transit to ease sharp increases in housing prices, and let more people live their daily lives without cars. As it stands, Boston is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, with a typical home value of nearly $700,000—more than double the national figure, according to Zillow.
Getting 175 separate municipalities to adopt new zoning rules to allow more housing is going to be “a big lift” though, Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, noted during the January webinar. “We need to recognize,” he said, “that the more we can do to share best practices, to dispel myths about multifamily housing, and to help communities visualize their potential growth, the more successful we will be.”
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