Growing Pains: Can Light Rail and Affordable Housing Co-Exist?

Posted on November 19, 2014

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The Outsider’s View is a monthly column written by Brittany Bennett on interesting and innovative community and economic development happenings in North Carolina with an emphasis on areas for potential collaboration between local governments and other partners.

Can Light Rail and Affordable Housing Co-Exist?

downtown then and now

by Brittany Bennett – LinkedIn and Twitter

Growth is good. It means our communities are thriving—people are moving in, new development is going up, there are good places to eat, and a variety of activities to enjoy. New businesses open, new homes and commercial spaces are built, and old ones are rehabilitated. Local governments benefit from the increased tax revenues. These are the traits of a growing community that I want to live in—all seemingly positive, but what’s the other side of the coin?

Many North Carolina cities and towns, along with others around the country, are experiencing the aches and pains that come along with a growth spurt. This post explores some of the equity concerns that arise as communities try to catch up with rapid growth while planning for a future as an attractive place to be.

Poster Child for Downtown Revitalization 

download (4)For many, Durham is the poster child for downtown revitalization. As a new resident, it’s difficult to believe that fifteen years ago no one wanted to be downtown because of blighted, empty store fronts and a reputation for crime. It had gotten so bad that a jail was the only development that could be attracted to the city’s downtown corridor in the mid-1990s. Fast forward to today and Durham’s downtown streets are a completely different scene of thriving offices, popular restaurants, and quaint local shops. (If you’re in town, make sure to have chicken and waffles at Dame’s, ice cream from The Parlour, pizza from Pizzeria Toro, and a donut from Monuts—yes, get all of these things because they are delicious).

Conversations with fellow Millennials suggest that Durham is the coolest place in the Triangle. After all, the Downtown Durham tagline is “Find Your Cool”—pretty apropos for the South’s “tastiest town.” To maintain its “cool” Durham has to plan around the services that are desired and expected by Millennials and other residents. At the heart of some of these plans is the proposed Durham-Orange light rail project. This plan is in the same the vein as buzz terms like, walkability, transit-oriented, and infill development that create denser neighborhoods that do not require the use of cars.  A partnership between Durham County, Orange County, and Triangle Transit Authority, the 17 mile rail project will connect Durham with Chapel Hill by way of 17 stops from UNC Hospital to East Durham. These local entities are in the early planning stages for the billion dollar project that is projected to begin operating in 2025 or 2026, according to the Our Transit Future website.

Not Another Durham Freeway

find your coolThe light rail will help usher Durham and the Triangle region into the next phase of growth, and developers are poised to take advantage of it by creating new units near proposed rail stops along the route. From windows at work, I often observe the construction activity happening nearby. Hundreds of new apartments are going up that will cost nearly $2,000 per month, well above current average rents. These expensive prices have left many people worried about future affordable housing stock and another buzz word: gentrification, as we see neighborhoods near downtown changing. This trepidation is especially prevalent among residents who were affected by the construction of the Durham Freeway (Highway 147) decades ago. When Highway 147 was built around the city, the historic Hayti community was decimated and many worry that the same will happen as a result of the light rail project.

downloadTo organize and advocate for these residents and for equitable development in general, are groups such as Durham Congregations in Action (DCIA) and the Coalition on Affordable Housing and Transit (CAHT). These groups bring together clergy, non-profits, CDCs, and community organizers and activists to develop feasible strategies to work with local government to protect low-income residents from being driven out of town by too-expensive housing stock.

In July, I attended a CAHT meeting that opened my eyes to this issue from the perspective of Durham residents. I heard first hand expressions of distrust toward the City because of the devastation caused by the Durham Freeway. This meeting featured Zerita Turner from Policy Link, who talked to the group about the role of non-profits and community development corporations in holding local officials accountable to protect affordable housing and commercial space along the rail line so that the people who need the rail service most, have access. According to Ms. Turner, these community organizations should be drivers of the equity conversation.

“Amenity for the Affluent”

Fortunately, the Federal Transportation Administration grant that Durham, Orange, and Triangle Transit are applying for has strong civil rights provisions that require the entities to plan for affordable housing in the early stages.

An interview with Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield emphasized the limitations on local government statutory authority to preserve and create affordable housing. Presently, the council has set a goal of making fifteen percent of housing near the rail stops affordable for people making 60% AMI. However, there is concern about the interpretation of this goal and the ability to enforce it. Community groups like those mentioned above may want this percentage to be required of all new development, but such a mandate likely will not go over so well with private developers.

download (5)A similar situation is being fought currently in Davidson, NC where a local developer is suing the local government for mandating affordable housing be included in all new developments. In this case, the developers had to pay more than $500,000 in lieu of providing affordable units. I suspect that the outcome of this suit will deter other local governments from strongly upholding affordable housing goals. Therefore, strong incentive packages will likely be the best solution, which the Durham groups plan to work with the City on crafting.

An alternative solution to the mandate is a partnership like that seen in Asheville, North Carolina and other places. This year, the City of Asheville financed land costs so that Habitat for Humanity could build twenty-two new single-family units in a new subdivision. Other communities, such as Charlotte have successfully created affordable housing trust funds with a local tax. Local community development organizations could also help with funding such a trust fund.

Though I’m excited about Durham’s growth and the light rail, I agree with Prof. Jim Svara’s comments to City Council in that, “[light rail] must not, however, be an amenity for the affluent with low and moderate income residents excluded by the absence of housing and displaced by increasing housing costs.” It’s clear that as we plan for and react to growth that many actors must be involved to hold leaders accountable and we must engage the community to find equitable solutions. If Durham loses the diversity that makes people love it, it will certainly also lose its “cool.”


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