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An AARP study highlights the importance of supporting affordable housing near public transportation and warns that many subsidies will soon expire.

Sitting in the activity room of the Seabury apartments, two residents tick off the advantages of having affordable housing right on the No. 16 bus line in St. Paul, Minn.

“I really like my independence,” says Carol Sandburg, 76, who never had a driver’s license. “I have eight kids in town and grandchildren who drive, but I don’t like always asking them for rides.” So she routinely rides the bus to meet a granddaughter for lunch, to Wal-Mart or to a favorite thrift store in her old neighborhood.

Bill Willard, 68, gave up his car 15 years ago when he noticed he was having trouble concentrating behind the wheel. “I would be stuck here without the bus,” Willard says. Now he’s looking forward to the opening of a new Minneapolis commuter rail line so he can visit two of his daughters in a distant suburb all on his own.

These residents’ situations support a new AARP study that highlights how important it is for older adults to have affordable housing near public transportation. Unfortunately, Seabury, a subsidized residence with 49 units built in 2002 by the nonprofit housing developer Episcopal Homes of Minnesota, is an exception to a troubling trend.

Despite the sharp downturn in the real estate market in recent years, the supply of affordable rental housing remains tight in most cities. Now, according to the study, “Preserving Affordability and Access in Livable Communities,” more than 250,000 affordable apartments located within walking distance of major transit lines in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas could disappear over the next five years because of expiring federal subsidies. The San Francisco Bay area would be hit hardest, losing 73 percent of its units surveyed by the study. Even Portland, Ore., often held up as the model for encouraging livable communities, would lose 67 percent.

Looming Crisis

This situation will hit older residents hardest because, according to a 2003 study by the National Housing Conference advocacy group, two-thirds of the 1.35 million households in federally subsidized, privately owned housing are headed by residents over the age of 62. “We need to start working now before we reach the point of no return,” says Dan Bartholomay, commissioner of Minnesota’s state housing agency. “Older people, who are a growing part of the population, are much better off in terms of mobility and health living in places where they can walk and take transit.”

This type of subsidized housing—known as Section 8 or Section 202 housing—guarantees private owners a steady stream of tenants. Tenants qualify for subsidies if their income is less than 50 percent of median income; their rent runs at 30 percent of their income. At Seabury, rents range from $75 to $500 a month.

The subsidized housing is contracted to remain affordable for a defined period, as long as 40 years or as short as a year. Then property owners are free to steeply raise rents. Many subsidized housing contracts are expiring in the next several years. At the same time, demand is growing for housing near transit because of traffic congestion, gasoline prices, environmental concerns and increasing interest in more “urban” lifestyles. “This is a big crisis that needs to be anticipated,” says Rodney Harrell, AARP’s livable communities policy adviser and a coauthor of the report.

Possible Solutions

The study makes three recommendations to address the looming problem:

 

  •  Preserve the affordable housing that now exists and develop “early warning systems” for properties with expiring federal subsidies.
  • Coordinate housing, transportation and land use policies more effectively to increase the supply of affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods served by quality transit. Improve public transportation by boosting government investment and making trains and buses more accessible to riders.
  • Improve public transportation by boosting government investment and making trains and buses more accessible to riders.

The study didn’t track new housing that will become available. The federal programs that create affordable housing still operate, but declining funding and the weak economy have slowed construction to a trickle, says Todd Nedwick, assistant director of public policy for the National Housing Trust and another coauthor of the study. The Obama administration has proposed spending $1 billion to set up a trust to fund construction of affordable housing.

Real Examples

Other efforts around the country show promise for creating affordable housing. In Denver, where 45 percent of subsidized housing near transit is set to expire within five years, the city created a $15 million public-private Transit-Oriented Development Fund to keep housing affordable within a half mile of rail lines and within a quarter mile of well-traveled bus routes.

The problem is less acute in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where 27 percent of this kind of housing is threatened, but work by Episcopal Homes serves as a model for creating subsidized housing. Encouraged by the success of Seabury, the group opened a second subsidized senior building near St. Paul’s No. 16 bus line in 2007. It plans to break ground for a third project this winter and is considering a fourth site. All four sites are adjacent to future stations along a light rail that will link downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis in 2014.

Back at Seabury, Bob Willard is heading to the bus stop. He walks out Seabury’s door near the activity room, through a gate and reaches the bench in barely 10 paces. A block away stands Porky’s, a drive-in restaurant that symbolized the American Graffitti era in the Twin Cities. Indeed, a prominent local newspaperman dubbed the hot-rod-loving teenagers of the 1950s the “Porky’s Generation.” Fifty years later, those former teens are more likely to walk or ride the bus than cruise in Chevys and Thunderbirds. But thanks to Seabury and similar affordable housing in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods, they can still make the scene at Porky’s, which is legendary for its onion rings and pork cutlet sandwiches.

Jay Walljasper is editor of OnTheCommons.org and a senior fellow at the Project for Public Spaces.

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