Affordable Housing is Also About Transportation

By HousingNOW! chair Foo Pham

This essay is the fifth of a six-part series. The HousingNOW! Task Force will be reviewing the housing opinion survey distributed to Faith Action members in May 2021. This series is intended to equip members with more knowledge before the next legislative session.

Eighty two percent of members agreed housing subsidized by the state near transit should have limited parking to encourage mass transit use.  This essay is about my experience living without a car, and how the conversation about affordable housing is also a conversation about transportation.

My Life Without a Car

I have lived in different U.S. cities without a car. I lived a transit-dependent life because I could not afford an automobile on top of my other living expenses. I navigated life constantly thinking about bus routes and schedules, writing down times and intersections on paper when I didn’t own a smart phone. But I still had a thriving life in my communities without a car.

I was fortunate to have grocery stores, restaurants, clinics, etc. nearby; for what I could not reach on foot, I could reach by bus or rail. My housing didn’t come with a parking space; therefore, I wasn’t paying for something I did not need. I had two criteria when looking for housing: 1) Would it cost less than 30 percent of my income?  2) Was it conveniently located near frequent public transportation?

Whose Needs Should We Prioritize?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 70% of people who rely on public transportation to get to work earn less than $75,000 annually. This is the cost-burdened ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, and employed) population identified in the previous essay. There is significant overlap between the transit-dependent and housing cost burdened.

When you can’t afford a personal automobile, your options for finding affordable places to live are limited. You think, “How many buses will I need to take between home and work, groceries, school, friends and family…? Are my work hours going to be compatible with the transit schedule? Will personal automobile costs offset all the savings of finding cheaper, less convenient housing?”

We have an opportunity to address the housing needs of our transit-dependent population by following a strategy called transit-oriented development (TOD). TOD is a pattern of different uses—housing, jobs, and services located conveniently near affordable rail and bus transit. Housing developed in TOD areas may therefore be constructed with fewer parking spaces, which reduces construction costs and leaves floor area for more housing units. This enables units to be rented or sold at lower costs to residents.

“How is that going to work? How do you convince people to get out of their cars!?” ask the doubters.

The answer is to deliberately prioritize new housing for non-automobile-owning households, which account for ten percent of our population. Since transit-dependent households already use public transportation, they will make parking-reduced, transit-oriented development successful. Unfortunately, their voices are the least likely to be heard at public meetings about housing and transportation.

Not all low-income, nor all housing cost-burdened households are transit-dependent. However, TOD is an opportunity for which our community’s ALICE population should have priority—to see that “the last shall be made first.”

Increasing low-cost housing options that are conveniently located near transit will make lives easier in terms of time and money. Households will be less so transit-dependent and more so transit-oriented, which will make them an example to the car-using population of how we can all re-think our relationships with the built environment. TOD will empower us to reduce our impacts on the natural environment and make our community more sustainable.

If you are interested in being more involved with the HousingNOW! Task Force, please e-mail housing@faithactionhawaii.org.