Transit Oriented Development & Affordable Housing



There is no one definition for Transit Oriented Development (TOD), but it is commonly defined as compact mixed-use development planned around transit hubs and accessible to walkable neighborhoods. For example, the metropolitan transit authority of Portland Oregon defines TOD’s as:

Multiple-unit housing and mixed use projects that support the public investment in light rail and fixed route transit (bus) service because they preserve, enhance, or contribute to creating active pedestrian districts within walking distance of transit. A TOD may be a single building, a group of buildings, or a multiple block district.

They are also referred to as Pedestrian Pockets, which have been described as “a simple cluster to housing, retail space and offices within a quarter-mile walking radius of a transit system.” 1 Even though these models may be most applicable to urban environments, they have also been applied in ex-urban and suburban settings. 2 However, true TOD’s need to have sufficient density and diversity of uses, be anchored by a mass transit station, and be predominantly accessible by pedestrians or cyclists. Otherwise, the equally broad term of TAD, or Transit-Adjacent Development, may be more appropriate. 3

TOD’s are often promoted as a means to revitalize urban and suburban centers, and as an alternative to the economically and environmentally unsustainable model of predominant ex-urban North American land-use planning and development. They are positioned as an antidote to sprawl, which often leads to the loss of farmland, open space, and most-importantly, local character. TOD’s can also be effective models for incorporating affordable housing. According to the Center for Transit Oriented Development, “Development of housing adjacent to transit presents opportunities to meaningfully address the nation’s continued need for affordable housing.” 4 The American Public Transportation Association states that households that use transit instead of driving can save almost $9,500 per year, an amount equivalent to groceries, childcare or community college tuition for two kids for the same time period. 5

Peter Calthorpe, one of the founders of Transit Oriented Development, states, “affordable housing must start with affordable neighborhoods.” 6 Nationally, transportation is second only to housing as a household cost, with the average family spending approximately 32% of their income on housing and 19% on transportation. More importantly, extremely low income households can spend over 50% of their family income on transportation and often depend on unreliable automobiles. Many move to suburban locations because of lower housing costs, but any gains they make are quickly erased or exceeded by transportation costs. However, for those who live in transit rich locations, 32% remains the cost of housing, but transportation can be as low as 9%. 7 Simply stated, the more one can use public transportation, the less one’s transportation cost will be, increasing the overall affordability of a place of residence. TOD’s can be an essential component of a comprehensive affordable housing strategy because living adjacent to public transportation can significantly reduce a household’s transportation costs.

Beyond issues of affordability, TOD’s have the ability to create neighborhoods, often walkable, and enhance the character of the built environment. As national demographics and living costs continue to transform so will the market for housing near transit. According to the Center for Transit Oriented Development, the demand for transit adjacent housing will nearly triple in the next twenty years, an estimate that could easily change with increasing gas prices and commute times. Moreover, the largest growing populations, singles, couples without children, the elderly, and low-income households, are the most likely to seek TOD’s. 8

Several cities across the United States have adopted TOD regulations and guidelines for existing or future transit. The Intermodal Transit Fund established by the North Carolina Assembly in 2009, plans for a more transit-based future. One of its requirements is the provision that to receive funding there needs to be an “identification of potential resources and a strategy to provide replacement housing for low-income residents displaced by transit development and to create incentives for the purpose of increasing the stock of affordable housing to at least fifteen percent (15%) within a one-half mile radius of each transit station and bus hub to be affordable to families with income less than sixty percent (60%) of area median income.” 9 Statewide, the selection of an appropriate strategy to accomplish these housing goals will be vital to the success of future TOD’s, as well as an essential component of a proactive and sustainable affordable housing strategy.10

¹ Douglas Kelbaugh, The Pedestrian Pocket Book, A New Suburban Strategy, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989, p. ix.

2 Pedestrian Pockets were developed specifically for suburban conditions.

3 The Transit Cooperative Research Program Report 102, Transportation Development in the United States: Experiences, Challenges and Prospects, Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board, 2004, p.5.

4 It goes on to argue “at the same time (it can) expand access to jobs, educational opportunities and prosperity for a range of income groups. By offering: (1) affordable housing, (2) a stable and reliable base of transit riders, (3) a broader access to opportunity and (4) protection from displacement, mixed-income TOD holds the potential to address the problems of worsening traffic congestion, the need for affordable housing in metropolitan areas and the growing gap between lower income and wealthier residents.” Realizing the Potential: Expanding Housing Opportunities Near Transit, The Center for Transit Oriented Development, 2007, p. 3.

5 American Public Transportation Association.

6 Peter Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993, p.29.

7 Realizing the Potential: Expanding Housing Opportunities Near Transit, The Center for Transit Oriented Development, pp. 7-10.

8 Op cit., p. 6.

9 The General Assembly of North Carolina, Session 2009, House Bill 148.

10 Graduate Research Assistant Lauren Westmoreland prepared portions of this section.