Climate

Opinion: Union Station is Denver’s housing hub, but can suburbs benefit from transit-oriented communities?

Union Station has been a transit hub since 1881. It thrived for 70 years with intercity travelers who transferred from heavy rail to street cars to get home.

Then, land-use patterns and transportation habits changed. Housing arose in suburban communities connected by interstate highways and automobiles came to dominate the roads and family budgets.

Union Station limped along for the intervening 50 years. New housing (including an affordable building required by the city) was built across mostly impassable rail tracks in the Central Platte Valley, but none immediately adjacent. The station served Amtrak, the RTD C-line, and a couple of busses — but few riders.

That is until four government entities implemented a vision for a community in Lower Downtown centered on transit with Union Station as a rail and bus hub, and supported by thousands of new homes to boost ridership. The new density in this transit-oriented community has supported grocery stores, farmers markets, restaurants, and a thriving neighborhood in LoDo.

As I moved from being an advocate to a Union Station board member to city council, I eventually helped ensure a slice of the newly built housing was priced for bus drivers and baristas who worked there.

DENVER, CO - JULY 16: This is the view from the tenth-floor of the upscale apartment building Verve at 1490 Delgany Street in Wednesday night, July 16, 2014. The building is located directly between Union Station and the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver. Nearly 40,000 apartments are set to come online soon in the metro area. (Photo by Karl Gehring/The Denver Post)
This 2014 file photo captures the view from the tenth-floor of the upscale apartment building Verve at 1490 Delgany Street. The building is located directly between Union Station and the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver. A boom of housing was developed simultaneously to the update of the Union Station transit center.(Photo by Karl Gehring/The Denver Post)

It’s easy to see the “housing-transit” connection at fancy Union Station, but cities across our state have or are looking to replicate much smaller three- to five-story models. Think about transit-oriented communities like Mason Corridor in Fort Collins, the mature Boulder Junction, and Arvada Town Center, and imagine the possibilities at the McCaslin Park-n-Ride in Superior.

Gov. Jared Polis and state legislators want to speed that process with legislation to ensure 31 cities with frequent transit, in the Denver metro area plus Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, have zoning in place to support more housing along transit hubs.

A Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC) bill that would create moderate density around transit, House Bill 1313, is pending at the Capitol. It is part of a package to ease the housing crisis through zoning reforms by spurring new supply and improving housing affordability for Coloradans.

The approach could also guarantee long-term affordable units if a companion bill passes that allocates $30 million in new tax credits for building housing priced for families earning less than 60%, 50% or even 30% of the median income. That translates into incomes below $60,000 (depending on household size and county of residence).

More broadly, even adding market-rate multi-family housing near transit will save residents money and trigger expanded access to lower-priced apartments. However, using HB 1313 to require builders to include some on-site affordability while they build up could reach even more Coloradans needing rents below market rate faster.

Economic evidence supports both greater density and building affordable housing near transit. A minimum density is needed to boost ridership, which brings in more fares to strengthen transit agencies and help stabilize or improve service for all riders.

Low- and moderate-income families earning less than $55,000 spend 60% or more of their income on the combined costs of housing and transportation. They save 9% on transportation if they live in a walkable, transit-rich community with amenities because they’re the most likely to ditch cars for transit. The combination also reduces greenhouse gas emissions, slowing the climate change that has brought killer heat, wildfires, and melting snowpack to Colorado.

The question of how market-rate (a.k.a. likely to be expensive) housing in transit-oriented communities helps ease the crisis is more complex, but there’s a reason for optimism.

In the counties that the TOC bill covers, attached housing like condos and duplexes sell for an average of $204,000 less than a single-family home, according to my research as a fellow for The Bell Policy Institute. Condos are certain to be allowed under the densities required. Local governments may also average zoning for much taller buildings with less-dense zoning, meaning townhome configurations could also help meet the minimum density in some scenarios.

The TOC legislation has the potential to expand homeownership at lower prices than new single-family construction.

And if nonprofits and cities can secure parcels within these transit-oriented communities to put in a land trust model, it would help expand homeownership among more moderate-income families. Land trusts hold the land under a building in “community” ownership where it does not appreciate, and the units built or existing on the land are often price- and income-restricted.

There is extensive research on the effect new apartments have on surrounding rents and affordability. Older methods have associated new competition with lower rents only as older housing in the community aged over several decades.

Newer evidence finds modest price decreases of -$100 to -$159 in the immediate vicinity of new buildings right away (< 0.2 miles).

Even more promising results document vacancies opening up in lower-priced apartments quickly, which are taken advantage of by a larger share of renters with lower incomes at each successive move that is triggered. The phenomenon is often compared to musical chairs. “Chairs” open up for those with lower incomes because some workers are “renting down” in homes costing less than they could really afford in places with an overall shortage. When workers who can afford to rent new apartments “stand up” and move, they open up “chairs” down the price and income spectrum.

In popular Colorado destinations, local protections against diverting new homes for short-term rentals would increase the chances of replicating these outcomes.

Yet, according to an interim housing needs assessment by the Denver Regional Council of Governments, 60% of new housing or 137,00 dwellings will be needed for working families earning less than 60% of median income by 2040. A $100 break on a $2,500 rent still won’t be affordable for them. We can expand on apartments loosened up through moves by building mixed-income affordable housing as a percentage of any market homes being built on day one.

States and cities in California and Massachusetts are leading on similar zoning changes and both have state or local policies that pair density with affordability requirements, typically 10% or more of the units in new construction must be below market rates. Colorado or local governments should too. (Part 4 of this series will dive deeper into this so-called inclusionary housing model.)

And we must mitigate against the risk of displacement that can still accompany new housing development in vulnerable communities. Public or community land ownership is a leading strategy for doing so, as is getting more renters into homeownership.

Inside the Colorado Capitol, the debates over House Bill 1313 have been dominated by insider-baseball, chicken-egg questions. Should we reform zoning first or improve transit frequency? What should the formula in the bill be to determine the density of these communities? And should we include a penalty in the bill that links transportation funding to compliance (for now the bill doesn’t include the penalty)? What most Coloradans likely care about more is whether housing will match the character of their communities and if it will help the crisis. According to recent polls, statewide support for more density near transit ranged from half to two-thirds.

While generic “density” didn’t scare off poll respondents, it does some opponents. When residents are presented with real-life transit-oriented scenarios during hands-on planning exercises, they embrace the walkable communities it creates.

Like when 1,300 Fort Collins residents were shown communities with denser than average housing near transit. In a city that struggled to pass zoning reforms at the policy level, the majority of residents preferred the scenario with the greatest concentration of infill development with high-frequency transit-service when they were looking at it. More media coverage of what comparable 3-4 story models look and feel like when covering debates would help bridge an important gap.

Ultimately, upzoned transit-oriented communities with housing funding can align with both the affordability and quality of life interests of broad swaths of Coloradans.

Implementing proactive protections against displacement in vulnerable communities, as called for in the bill, along with the newly signed protection against eviction without cause, will help mitigate risks.

Passing the $30 million tax credit for affordable housing with the TOC bill and demanding that a percentage of newly built units are affordable up front, as seven of the 31 cities that are the subject of the bill already do, would expand outcomes for even more struggling Coloradans.

Robin Kniech was an at-large Denver city councilmember from 2011-23 and sponsor of Denver’s Affordable Housing Fund, Homelessness Resolution Fund and many other affordable housing and zoning measures. She is a Bell Policy Center Economic Mobility fellow. Read full reports @robinkniech through Substack or Medium.

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