Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A neon plastic lapel pin of a house and other, better ideas

by Rebecca Cohen, Center for Housing Policy

In the opening plenary session at yesterday’s Rail~Volution conference, William Millar, outgoing president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), noted that in 2010, 73 percent of all state and local transit initiatives were successful at the ballot box. As described in an APTA press release, voters in 14 states said “yes” to 22 of 30 public transportation-related ballot initiatives, authorizing some $500 million in spending over 5 years even as the economy continued to struggle. The lesson that Millar drew from this success is that—despite calls by some at the national level to cut taxes and spending above all else—people will pay for good service.

How can the housing community learn from this success?
  • Provide a high-quality, well-managed product—A poorly-planned, unreliable transit system will suffer from low ridership and may ultimately be seen as a drain on public funds. When reliable service connects key destinations, however, transit will be seen as a valuable public asset. The same could be said for affordable housing which, when well-designed and managed, can actually help to boost surrounding property values.
  • Branding matters—One of the panelists in the opening plenary, which also included Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Congressman Early Blumenauer, described the success of the Circulator system, which connects destinations around the Washington DC metro. The Circulator has been popular with tourists and locals who don’t ordinarily ride the bus, and much of its success has been attributed to marketing of the system as a fun, convenient alternative to the bus. Advocates and practitioners in the housing world have used a variety of terms—ranging from affordable to low-income to workforce—to describe the homes they provide. Many organizations have tried to take a fresh look at how our mixed-income and affordable developments are described in order to dispel dated notions perceptions of the “projects” and the people who live there. 
  • Adapt tools to prevailing conditions—In his remarks, Secretary LaHood spoke about the need to identify a stable, long-term funding source for public transit. He noted that an alternative funding source is critical because (among other reasons) as cars become more fuel-efficient, the gas tax will fail to deliver the revenue needed to adequately support transportation needs. Similarly, in the face of the economic downturn, housing practitioners are being confronted with the need to adapt traditional mechanisms for producing affordable homes. Density bonuses in return for affordable units will no longer entice developers who cannot sell homes in the first place; housing trust funds supported by deed transfer fees will dry up when housing markets slow down. A full range of tools exists to create and preserve affordability in slow markets, and it is time for these to be revisited in some communities.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer sporting
his iconic bike pin
The transportation firebrand Blumenauer, while elected as a member of the Democratic Party by Oregon’s 3rd district, calls himself “aggressively bike-partisan.” Bike paths, transit systems, and roads are not inherently Democratic or Republican, neither are well-structured mortgages, well-maintained affordable senior homes, or mixed-income, mixed-use transit-oriented developments. Attendees at Rail~Volution were encouraged to carry this message back to their representatives in Congress. Housing advocates can and should continue to do the same.

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