The Purple Line might put walkable neighborhoods and jobs near transit in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, but without the right housing policies to go along with it the project could also displace many Prince George’s residents. A housing trust fund, lower parking minimums, inclusionary zoning, and more housing density would stave off this risk.
A refresher: what the Purple Line is and where it stands
The proposed Purple Line is a 16-mile light rail that will run between Bethesda and New Carrollton. The light rail will not formally be a part of the Metro system, but will connect users with three Metro lines and hundreds of bus routes.
Additionally, and possibly more importantly, the Purple Line will help to bridge the East-West divide in our region by giving residents throughout Prince George’s access to jobs and opportunities in Bethesda and Silver Spring. Transit access is one of the greatest burdens to lower income residents in both Montgomery and Prince George’s as it puts limits on where individuals may work and pursue opportunities.
Despite the benefits that the Purple Line will produce, the entire project remains on ice. In August of 2016, Federal Judge Richard Leon revoked environmental approval for the project claiming insufficient study on how the decline of Metro could impact ridership. More recently, on May 22, Judge Leon upheld this ruling not permitting the project to continue until further analysis was completed.
Maryland is in the process of appealing this decision, however, the delays have already cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and put the final construction of the Purple Line in jeopardy.
If the Purple Line does move forward, there’s a risk of displacement
Langley Park, located in the International Corridor in Prince George’s County, is one of the communities with the most to gain from the light rail. Langley Park has a large and predominantly low-income immigrant population with nearly 50% of residents earning below the DC metro area’s household median income. Many residents are dependent upon transit to reach jobs and with all of Langley Park residents living within 1/2 mile of the two proposed stations in the neighborhood, the potential improvements to the area have no bounds.
If the Purple Line does move forward in the coming months, the entire region will benefit from the improved transit options. But there are still concerns about what, exactly, the light rail would mean for Langley Park and other communities across the region.
New developments that follow transit lines often bring rising property values. With up to 75 percent of the residents in Langley Park already rent-burdened – spending over 30 percent of their income on rent – there’s little room for change. Langley Park has an older and deteriorating housing stock that has been helpful in keeping rents low, but rents have still trended upwards in recent years.
At this point, there is no telling whether future developments along the Purple Line corridor would mirror the booming projects in DC in neighborhoods such as NoMa or Navy Yard. But it is clear that there is a high risk for displacement if proactive policies are not enacted, and current residents could lose the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of what the Purple Line will bring.
The Purple Line is not likely to arrive until at least 2022, so there is time to establish guidelines to ensure we support equitable development. Below are several policies the County should consider in the coming years.
Create an affordable housing trust fund
Prince George’s County is the only jurisdiction in the Washington region without an active housing trust fund. Housing trust funds are established by individual jurisdictions and receive dedicated public funding in order to preserve and construct affordable housing. Creating one would be great for Langley Park because it could provide the funds to help rehab much of the area’s deteriorating housing stock. It would also be useful for acquiring undeveloped land and developing it into affordable units.
In Montgomery County the Housing Initiative Fund (HIF), created in 1988, currently has a balance of about $44 million that was largely generated from property tax revenue and loan repayments. The HIF has benefited thousands of residents by creating over $490 million of affordable housing stock in the past 15 years. Creating a similar fund in Prince George’s County would provide the region with a long-term solution that encourages community input in decision making and would enable funding for affordable units for years to come.
Reduce parking minimums
Enacting legislation that eliminates or reduces parking minimums would help ensure that new developments near the Purple Line encourage the usage of public transit, walking, and biking, and reduce driving. Parking minimums are rules set up by jurisdictions that require developers to build a minimum number of parking spaces depending on building size and location. They often drive up the price of condos and apartments as developers pass the cost of the parking space or garage onto the tenant.
Currently, the parking minimum in Prince George’s is 1.33 spaces per unit if located within a mile of a Metro station. Reducing this number to 0.7 spaces per unit or eliminating the requirement completely would reduce development costs and make it possible to build more housing and affordable housing.
In 2015, Minneapolis passed a similar policy to eliminate parking requirements for new housing near transit. Despite initial pushback from the business community, the policy has promoted greater usage of transit and laid the groundwork for opening up more affordable housing in the community.
The conditions are ripe for such a policy in Langley Park because the area already has low car ownership and would greatly benefit from new and redeveloped housing stock.
Establish inclusionary zoning (IZ) requirements
Inclusionary zoning is a policy tool that uses the market to deliver affordable housing to the community. Under inclusionary zoning, when new condos or apartments are built, a set number of units are priced for households making up to a certain percentage of the area median income (AMI). In exchange, the developer is granted a density bonus allowing them to build additional market-rate units to offset the cost.
Right now, both DC and Montgomery County have inclusionary zoning requirements. In DC, new developments must set aside 8-10% of units for those making at or below 60% AMI. In Montgomery County, 12.5-15% of new units must be moderately priced for those making at or below 65% AMI.
This land use policy has created thousands of affordable units in both jurisdictions and would provide new units in Langley Park at no financial cost to the county. It would also leverage the expected building boom associated with the Purple Line and make sure that lower-income residents still have opportunities to live in the neighborhoods. Enacting IZ requirements would ensure that new developments would add affordable units to the area’s limited housing stock and limit displacement in the years to come.
Allow enough housing to meet demand
Displacement happens when there aren't enough housing units available for everyone who wants to live in a place. When ten people want to live somewhere with only six housing units, the six wealthiest usually get to live there, and the four least wealthy have to live somewhere else.
Even when special affordable housing programs help one or two of the less wealthy stay, four people still lose, because the root problem is that there are only six units for ten people.
To solve that root problem, Prince George's will need to rethink its zoning in some places to make it legal for enough housing to be built.
Specifically, planners will need to upzone commercial areas near light rail stations for enough high-density mixed-use development to absorb the increase in demand. That way, there won't be overwhelming pressure to redevelop the existing affordable housing, and the people who live in that existing housing can stay there.
Looking to the future
There will be displacement challenges when the Purple Line does arrive, but by taking steps now to enact proactive policies we will be able to do a better job preserving communities and making sure that the transit is available and used by those it was designed for.