Some people came because they were afraid of being uprooted from their homes. Others were concerned about local businesses being run out of their neighborhoods. Other people said they just loved trains.
Regardless of the reason, about 50 people packed into a mobile classroom at Immaculate Conception Catholic school Tuesday night to tackle an enormous issue facing Durham: Affordable housing and the light rail project.
Although the first train on the Durham and Orange counties’ light rail system
won’t leave its station for another 10 to 15 years, “We’re seeing changes in neighborhoods now,” said Selina Mack, director of Durham Community Land Trustees, a nonprofit that preserves and creates affordable housing. “Now is when the planning is happening. Now is when decisions are being made.”
See related PDF
The meeting involved several community groups—Durham CAN
, Durham Community Land Trustees
and the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit—plus the city planning department the Triangle Transit Authority,
which is spearheading the 17-mile, $1.8 billion project.
Housing prices and rents are already rising in Durham, and that trend is expected to escalate as the population increases by more than 60,000 people along the rail lines in Durham and Orange counties over the next 20 years.
As a result, land values could rise between 700 and 900 percent. “There will be a significant increase in rents and property values,” said Patrick Young of the city-county planning department. “It’s happened nationwide. We want the benefits of light rail but not the displacement.
The economic, educational and residential benefits of light rail are well-documented. Businesses open near the rail stops, creating jobs. Affordable housing allows low- and moderate-income people to go to school, work and live without the expense of a car.
However, to ensure that the system benefits everyone, not just the wealthy, city and county officials and advocacy groups have to establish a bulwark against high-end development run amok. Earlier this year, City Council and County Commissioners passed a resolution setting a goal that 15 percent of housing within a half-mile of transit stops will be affordable. To reach that goal, some housing will need to be created; other will need to be preserved.
Preservation will be key in the West End and Burch Avenue neighborhoods, where housing prices are rising. For example, 21 percent of housing within a half-mile of the proposed Buchanan Boulevard station is considered affordable, according to city figures. The Buchanan Station would be built near Main Street, across from Smith Warehouse, along the new rail line that would parallel the existing Amtrak route.
Affordable housing is defined as a house or apartment that requires no more than 30 percent of annual household income is to be spent on rent/mortgage and utilities. The federal government could amend that figure to include transportation costs. In that case, affordability would be redefined as a maximum 45 percent of household income would go toward those basic needs.
Durham’s median annual household income is $50,000 according to federal figures. However, that number is misleading because Durham is lumped in with Chapel Hill, a wealthier town. But using the 30 percent benchmark, a household at that income level should spend no more than $1,250 a month on housing and utilities. Factoring in transportation costs, a household should spend no more than $1,875.
But convincing developers to build affordable housing is difficult. Without subsidies or significant incentives, the free market does not work.
To encourage developers to allocate a portion of their projects to affordable housing, city officials could cut deals, for example, reducing the required number of parking spaces in exchange for affordable units. Since the apartments would be along the rail line, there would be less demand for cars.
Parking is expensive for developers—ranging from $1,200 per space for a surface lot to $12,000 for one a parking garage.
And state law significantly constrains what local governments can require of developers, Young said. Chapel Hill is known for its “inclusionary zoning” policy,
which mandates that projects of more than five units allocate 15 percent of them at affordable prices for low- and moderate-income households. (10 percent in the town center.) However, that policy has yielded only 230 affordable housing units in 15 years.
Charlotte has also failed on this point. The city’s Lynx line is often held up as the model
of light rail in North Carolina—it has far exceeded its ridership goals—but because the city was late in planning for affordable housing, little if any exists along the transit line.
“It’s very difficult to come up with affordable housing once the high-end development is built,” said Ivan Parra of Durham CAN. “Unless we are the table we will lament the same problems that have occurred in Charlotte.”
Half of the cost of the $1.8 billion project is to be funded by federal money. Another 25 percent of the money is covered by the half-cent sales tax and additional vehicle registration fees, which were approved in a referendum by Orange and Durham county voters
The wild card, though, is state funding, which is projected to cover the remaining 25 percent of the cost. Republican lawmakers have been at best indifferent, and at worst, hostile to public transit, especially rail.
“I personally believe the state funding is tenuous,” said Patrick Young of the Durham City-County Planning Department. “We’re probably going to have to tweak the model unless we want to wait out the political environment in Raleigh.”
Here are some fast facts about the proposed light rail line:
The 17-mile system will run from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Alston Avenue in Durham
; estimated travel time for the entire trip is 39 minutes.
The plan calls for 17 stations, 11 of them in Durham, along the new light rail line that will largely parallel—but not share—existing Amtrak/freight routes.
Trains would run every 10 minutes during peak hours, every 20 minutes in off-peak. Trains would run 18 hours a day, every day.
Federal law requires the plan to undergo several environmental studies. Alternative routes Little Creek and New Hope Creek
You can comment on the light rail plan at www.ourtransitfuture.com through Nov. 7.
Public comments will be compiled and released at Triangle Transit’s public meetings through November.
If you’re interested in affordable housing or transit, there are at least three meetings scheduled for October on the topics:
Monday, Oct. 6, 7 p.m., at City Hall: Durham City Council will hold a consolidated plan hearing on affordable housing needs.
Monday, Oct. 20, noon– 1 p.m., First Presbyterian Church, 305 E. Main St.: Coalition for Affordable Housing & Transit meets.
Tuesday, Oct. 28, 6:30–8:30 p.m., Immaculate Conception Church, Emily K Center, 810 W. Chapel Hill St.: Durham CAN holds its assembly on housing jobs and transit.