Advancing social and economic equity means creating a participatory environment where we can share our ideas and establish a level of cooperation that will allow for greater productivity both individually and collectively. For many Triangle residents, civic engagement and awareness of policy matters related to issues such as the correlation between transportation and affordable housing is critical in promoting quality of life. City leaders, developers and citizens must engage in productive dialogue to address the needs of working families, particularly those of low to moderate income. Therefore, as future investment decisions regarding mass transit take shape, community members must be given the opportunity to provide their personal input in local and regional governmental decisions regarding access and mobility.
Working families and Housing Affordability
Many working families are faced with the dilemma of paying a greater share of their income for housing or enduring long commutes resulting in high transportation costs that put a strain on household finances. Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable throughout NC’s urban core, particularly in the Triangle where these higher housing costs are forcing low-income and some middle class residents to move farther away to locate affordable housing options. Despite this reality, many residents throughout the Triangle are either currently working or seeking employment in urban job centers.
Preservation and creation of affordable housing in areas serviced by new transit stations provides an alternative to suburban sprawl, which in turn, reduces transportation costs, traffic congestion and air pollution. Typically, investment in new transit systems in urban areas dominated by rental units leads to higher rent prices, gentrification, and displacement of working class, lower‐income residents. For this reason, it is important for city and county leaders to take action by addressing affordable housing needs by identifying strategies for land and building acquisition in locations where transit investments are being considered. Access to jobs, schools and services in high opportunity areas help balance the economic and social benefit of public investment in transit while providing working class families the opportunity to live in the areas in which they work.
Population Growth and Transportation, Housing Policies
Increased population growth in the Triangle leading to suburban sprawl is making it increasingly difficult for some residents to also access destinations for shopping, visiting relatives or running routine errands. A smart growth approach to affordable housing and transportation can help both communities and their residents protect the environment while achieving the goal of producing more affordable, livable communities. Housing options available for working families often times are found in areas that are dispersed and low-density. These areas cannot support viable public transit, biking, or pedestrian options making auto ownership a necessity. Therefore, the true cost of housing is the combined cost of housing plus transportation. Longer commute times from these neighborhoods end up costing working families, on average, nearly 60 percent of household income when combining the costs of housing and transportation. For those families who choose to bear the higher cost of living in central cities in the Triangle, transportation cost may drop but the increased housing costs creates somewhat of a “treadmill effect” in the pursuit of financial security and upward mobility.
Connecting people to employment opportunities, education and networks enhance social capital and provide the necessary foundation for successful life outcomes. As mass transit systems in the Triangle region seek to expand, so must affordable housing opportunities near new transit stations and without collaborative outreach efforts from city leaders, informed citizens and developers we will miss a golden opportunity to work toward balancing the scale of social and economic equity.
Shawn – I’d like to know your thoughts or experience on two challenges for engaging people on affordable housing-transportation: a) Some information can be pretty technical – how to make it understandable so participation from different kinds of people is valued; b) Reaching both people in a neighborhood that is changing due to housing-transportation plans AND those people who might move to this area due to more affordable housing. As you put it, many working class folks are being pushed away from the urban core and limited to private vehicles rather than public transit options.
First, community leaders have to be proactive in facilitating forums in close proximity to those with the lived experiences of inaccessibility to transit and affordable housing. Shared spaces where community members and organizers, as well as policymakers and developers can build relationships that are cultivated based on honesty and trust create an environment conducive to learning. Once the dialogue begins, the experts have an opportunity to listen to get a better understanding of what’s being lost in the technical details of access and mobility. Those members of the community that are consistent and dedicated to the cause of advancing equity will ultimately become teachers to the broader community taking lessons learned and conveying them to their respective neighborhoods, particularly those on the fringes.
Secondly, land acquisition now in areas where transit investment is likely, as opposed to waiting until the cost of land increases after new transit has been established could be an effective way of balancing cost vs. projected housing need. That way, as people move to the Triangle region we are better positioned to absorb growth.
Shawn – thanks for the additional thoughts. I hope this final comment from me will encourage others to speak up about good examples – or not so good examples – of what you see as most needed.
1. I like your point about facilitating forums in close proximity to those with the lived experiences of inaccessibility to transit and affordable housing.
2. Another good point: Once the dialogue begins, the experts have an opportunity to listen to get a better understanding of what’s being lost in the technical details of access and mobility. How to have the best mix of expert and technical information work with people’s common sense and heartfelt experiences is an important goal.
Here is some inspiration under the title Can You Explain Zoning Regulations to an 11-Year-Old? – http://elgl.org/2014/12/23/flame-challenge-can-explain-local-government-happenings-11-year-old/
Again, I hope readers can share their experiences on providing information in understandable ways.
I appreciate both Shawn’s post and John’s replies. The challenge of combining and explaining technical expertise with democratic engagement of people who know what they need is a central one for people working on public dialogue. It suggests that programs in such areas as urban planning and engineering should be providing training to their students about how to listen to communities and about how to translate their professional jargon into meaningful explanations for communities.