When reading about what's going on in Washington, D.C., our eyes are usually on the "big story" — we're looking for the Grand Bargain, a healthcare system overhaul, or at the very least, an Act of Congress.
But sometimes, it's the little things that matter, such as the recently announced changes to the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program.
New Starts is a federal program that provides grants for new public transit lines and extensions of existing transit lines. Because demand for New Starts funds greatly exceeds the supply of available federal funding, the grants are awarded by competition, encouraging project proposals to be as effective and efficient as possible.
Among other things, the new rules modify the criteria used to award New Starts grants, providing incentives for applicants to partner with local housing agencies to preserve and expand the availability of affordable homes near planned transit stations. This change was an important focus of advocacy for the National Housing Conference and others across the housing, transportation, and civil rights communities.
Why is this so important? In many cases, developers bid up the land around planned transit stations, increasing land costs, and consequently rents and housing prices. While a logical and foreseeable outcome of public investment in new transit capacity, these housing cost increases undermine many of the economic, social, environmental, and public health benefits of public transit by making it difficult for the low- and moderate-income families who most need public transit to access it. These housing cost increases may also drive low- and moderate-income families to relocate to the periphery of the metropolitan area, where they will find low housing prices but incur high transportation costs due to longer and more frequent car rides, undermining affordability as well as the environmental benefits of public transit.
The new rules are important for another reason as well. With demographic changes producing larger populations of both older adults and younger adults without children, demand is growing for "urban living" in walkable neighborhoods with good public transit access. As new development takes place to satisfy this demand, the new federal rule changes will help ensure that families of all incomes can access the benefits of smart housing and transit planning.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and it remains to be seen whether the new rules are implemented effectively, and whether New Starts applicants receive the assistance they need to build effective partnerships with local housing agencies.
Nevertheless, the new rules represent an important step in aligning housing and transportation policy to strengthen local communities.
Jeffrey M. Lubell is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Housing Policy and is a recognized expert in housing and community development policy. Prior to becoming head of the Center, Lubell worked as an independent consultant specializing in analyzing and developing recommendations for strengthening national, state, and local housing and community development policy.