City council members and county commissioners got an update last week on how the city-county planners plan to keep low-income housing close to future light-rail stations.
“It’s a legitimate and serious issue,” said Pat Young, assistant planning director, because other cities’ light-rail projects have raised nearby property values and forced the low-income residents who need public transit the most to move farther away from it.
“You do see that, uniformly across the country,” Young said. “As we get closer to the deployment date for light rail, the odds of there being conversion of existing affordable units to less affordable increases.”
The 17-mile Durham-Chapel Hill Light Rail Transit System route is planned to have 17 stations from Alston Avenue in Durham to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
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The update, presented to the Joint City-County Planning Committee, looked at current low-income, or “affordable,” housing near the station sites and various public-policy “tools” that might help make sure such housing is available if and when the route opens.
“Durham is unique in the country, out of over 50 cities and regions that have applied for (funding for) or implemented light-rail transit, in starting looking at this issue so early – about a dozen years in advance of the operations,” Young said.
“And that,” he said, “is to Durham’s great credit.”
The Federal Transportation Authority uses affordable housing, and actions taken for providing it, in scoring applications for money to build mass-transit systems. Triangle Transit, Durham and Chapel Hill hope federal money will cover half of the $1.3-plus billion construction cost (in 2012 dollars).
Durham’s two local governments have made a priority of maintaining and increasing the stock of affordable housing, last year setting a goal to have at least 15 percent of the residential units within a half-mile of each transit stop affordable to households at or below 60 percent of the area median income.
Currently, all but one of the 11 Durham County station areas meet that goal, according to a planning department analysis ( nando.com/rm) using the most resent census data. Senior planner Laura Woods said the analysis can be updated annually to serve as “an early warning system” for rising rents.
“We want to keep a very close eye on how market conditions are affecting each of the different station areas,” she said.
In two station areas, Alston Avenue and Dillard Street in East Durham, more than 15 percent of the current affordable housing is government subsidized and so protected from market forces. In other states and cities governments have tried various ways of encouraging developers and property owners to build and keep affordable housing.
A first step
Last week’s update was a first step to engaging the general public and, particularly, the development and real-estate community, in discussing and decision-making about transit housing ways, means and policies, Young said.
Looking ahead to that process, Justin Hunt, a planning-department intern from Duke University, gave the planning committee a pro-and-con analysis of 13 methods, among them:
• Quick review and permitting for development plans that include affordable housing – cheap and easy for local government, but not very effective where it has been used;
• Housing code changes – low cost, but changes would have to take public-health factors into account;
• A housing trust fund – such funds have been successful elsewhere and may be used for both building and preservation, but they require allocations of public money.
Hunt’s research was “just meant to frame the discussion as we go out into the community,” Young said, and to “include the public on what are the fiscal and budgetary impacts.
“What does the community think is worth doing?” he said.
Young said the planning staff also needs to know what the planning committee members think after they’ve digested the information they’ve been given.
“We don’t want to spend time on tools (you) don’t support,” he said.