A key place where green building and affordable housing goals coincide is access to transit. In many ways, “access to transit” or “transit-oriented development” is just shorthand for building in a location that connects with a variety of community amenities. “Transit” can include fixed rail, regular bus service, or even ferry service in the right locations.

The primary green building goal is to reduce automobile dependence and related carbon emissions, including by encouraging more efficient land-use patterns associated with traditional urban neighborhoods or small town centers. However, the results also address affordable housing and community development goals such as improved access to jobs, affordable health care, and quality education, along with a reduced transportation cost burden to low-income families.

Unfortunately, precisely because public transit is a valuable amenity and tends to raise property values and rents, it is often difficult to keep affordable housing units close by. This is true for both tenant-based and project-based subsidies, but many owners of project-based units close to transit are in particular danger of opting out of affordability restrictions.

The National Housing Trust(NHT) has developed significant research on this issue, quantifying the potential loss of affordable housing near transit and providing educational resources and advocacy to minimize these losses. NHT and Reconnecting America have identified more than 250,000 subsidized apartments in 20 cities within a half-mile of transit and estimate that nearly 70 percent of those apartments have federal contracts that will expire by 2014. These numbers highlight a unique challenge in preserving affordability: how to target preservation efforts to those units that provide the greatest benefits of community access and overall housing affordability (including transit costs). 

One possible local solution highlighted by NHT is the Denver Transit-Oriented Development Fund. This fund was created by the city of Denver and Enterprise Community Partners to support the creation and preservation of more than 1,000 units of affordable housing in current and future transit corridors. This $25 million fund made its first investment in May 2010 to provide the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC) with needed capital to purchase and operate the Dahlia Street Apartments. ULC will ultimately rehabilitate these six apartment buildings, resulting in 36 units affordable to families earning up to 50 percent of the area median income.

Additionally, a number of states have specifically targeted preservation needs connected to transit through their qualified allocation plans for low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs). For example, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development sets aside 35 percent of their LIHTC allocation to preserve and rehabilitate existing affordable housing but also awards additional scoring points for projects located within a half-mile of public transit options. This use of a scarce resource makes sense, as NHT estimates that rehabilitating existing properties requires approximately 40 percent less tax credit equity per unit than building new construction.

Still, as we develop and implement solutions, more research and communication is needed to ensure success in both public policy and ultimately in project financing. Recently, a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that “there has been little research that specifically links transit-oriented developments to affordable housing, hindering the ability of policy makers and private investors to make informed decisions or evaluate results.”

This finding does not mean that we are unsure whether access to transit is especially important in addressing the broad challenges of low-income families—only that we need more detail to predict the large-scale public benefits from such access across different communities and different regions. Still, NHT and Reconnecting America are providing national leadership on an issue that is critical both to green building devotees and to affordable housing advocates.

Casius Pealer is director of the Affordable Housing Initiative at the U.S. Green Building Council, where he focuses on advocacy and public policy.