Denver, CO

Seeds planted for affordable housing at Denver RTD stations

David Heitz

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It seems an obvious opportunity and a true win-win: Building affordable housing at Denver RTD stations.

Many of the stations consist mostly of parking lots. Those lots are ogled by real estate developers in housing-starved Denver.

Problem is, building guidelines have required real estate developers to replace every parking space they remove. The only way to do that is to stack them and build expensive parking garages.

But if you build affordable housing, you don’t need as many parking places. Why not? People who live in affordable housing tend to not own cars. They take public transportation instead.

What a great way to solve several problems: A housing shortage, especially a shortage of affordable housing; the loss of parking and reducing carbon emissions.

Transit-oriented developments relax parking rules

The Denver RTD Board of Directors recently approved a measure to encourage affordable housing at transit sites. It’s known as transit-oriented development, or TOD.

“For RTD, the new policy gives staff needed flexibility when developers propose projects, for instance, on the surface parking lots adjacent to the station at Central Park or the similar swaths of asphalt at County Line,” the RTD explained in a news release.

“RTD has a lot of land at transit stations, including many Park-n-Rides, and what this policy allows us to do is provide the parking that’s needed but also encourages developers to house the people who will most benefit from living at transit stations and who will actually use transit,” said Chessy Brady, RTD’s manager of transit-oriented development, in a statement.

“The new TOD policy gives RTD staff the flexibility it needs to give developers a break by not requiring that parking spots be replaced on a one-to-one basis,” the RTD explained in the news release. “In exchange for easing such requirements, however, the new policy allows RTD to set a non-binding goal that 35 percent of all housing developments on RTD property be priced as “affordable,” starting at 60 percent of median area incomes as a benchmark.

Transit housing turns stations into neighborhoods

Having housing at transit stations benefits neighborhoods because it maintains a constant level of vigilance. Other cities nationwide already have transit-oriented developments.

According to an article published in the Washington Post, transit-oriented developments are catching on coast to coast. They began way back in the 1990s with the opening of Los Angeles’ Blue Line rail service.

Today, successful TOD projects are up and running in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and other places. “The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has passed a nonbinding resolution calling for at least 75 percent of new housing to be in activity centers or near transit,” the Post reported.

“From 2016 through the end of 2018, more than 144 TODs were built in Chicago containing 24,419 residential units. Under the latest version of the policy, developers must incorporate affordable housing into any new projects, and there’s a bigger focus on building up the city’s south and west sides.”

Denver housing shortage at ‘crisis’ levels

According to the Denver RTD, the shortage of affordable housing in Denver is at “crisis” levels. This is evidenced in part by the city’s burgeoning homeless population.

“The city of Denver’s own figures show that the median income increased about 8 percent between 2015 and 2018, while rent increased 13 percent and the cost of homes jumped by 17 percent,” according to the RTD. “An estimated 96,000 households in Denver are spending more than one-third of total income on rent or mortgage – not a percentage that leads to financial stability.”

For transportation systems like the Denver RTD, TODs increase ridership with a built-in customer base. The new policy, says Brady, “will spark more development ‘activation’ around the transit stations that leads to housing, along with commercial spaces such as coffee shops and convenience stores and the kinds of shops and services that are naturally attracted to density.”

Brady said: “Transit works in density. It doesn’t work in sprawl.”

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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