Viña Apartments (48th & Race) in Denver, Colorado. Image courtesy of the Urban Land Conservancy.

This article is part of a limited series exploring the history, current policies, and initiatives to create equitable transit-oriented development in the region. The complete series is available here.

The Washington region’s housing crisis has been a much-discussed issue for years, from a shortage of housing for people experiencing homelessness and low-income residents, to the need for more homes for those in the “missing middle.

At the same time, our region has seen a boom in transit-oriented development, or TOD, which is typically defined as a mixed-use building that is walkable and in close proximity to a transit station. WMATA, for instance, has constructed 55 new buildings at 30 Metro stations since 1975 and recently announced its first-ever strategic plan for TOD projects, with a goal of 20 new developments on Metro-owned land across the region by 2032. The benefits of living in close proximity to transit, however, have not been evenly felt.

To change that status quo, many cities are exploring ways to center equity in the policies and procedures that shape outcomes at transit-oriented sites. This new, more intentional approach to development is increasingly referred to as equitable transit-oriented development, or ETOD.

The definitions of and policies to support ETOD vary from city to city, or even from project to project. For example, just last month, Chicago’s city council passed a comprehensive plan for ETOD called the Connected Communities Ordinance that “creates jobs by catalyzing investment near transit, makes streets safer for all Chicagoans who walk, bike, drive or roll their wheelchair, and promotes affordable housing options near transit,” according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s press release.

The ordinance is an offshoot of Chicago’s ETOD policy plan, a collaborative multi-year effort between Elevated Chicago, local stakeholders, and government officials. The plan defines equitable transit-oriented development as “development that enables all people regardless of income, race, ethnicity, age, gender, immigration status or disability to experience the benefits of dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development near transit hubs.”

The plan emphasizes closing the socioeconomic gap between neighborhoods that are majority people of color and those that are majority white. Ensuring that community members are not just heard, but actually part of the decision-making process is also key.

“When centered on racial inclusion and community wealth building, ETOD can be a driver of positive transformation for more vibrant, prosperous, and resilient neighborhoods connected to opportunities throughout the city and region” the Chicago plan states.

Meanwhile, in Denver, a coalition called Mile High Connects formed in 2011 to create community-based approaches to building ETOD in response to the Regional Transportation District (RTD)’s plans to expand its light rail system. “Our community stakeholders, which ranged from local philanthropic community members to community organizers, witnessed the potential for displacement if vulnerable communities along future transit hubs were not prioritized. And [we] made an intentional decision to focus on future light rail stations and prioritize those properties for affordable housing,” said Deyanira Zavala, the former executive director at Mile High Connects.

Over its 10-year existence, Mile High Connects engaged with community members, collected data, and disseminated information to advocacy groups, activists, and agencies that influenced state-level affordable housing policies to help ensure that rental units at new developments are priced for households spanning various points in the region’s area median income (AMI).

But housing affordability isn’t the only key to ETOD, Zavala explained. “As we were focusing on affordable housing, we became acutely aware of the intersectional nature of transportation and realized that while we could focus our efforts on affordable housing, we really needed to look at the transportation system as a whole and started to organize some campaigns around affordable transit and access to good paying jobs near transit hubs.”

As the Washington region moves forward with building TOD around Metro stations, the Purple Line, and other transit hubs, here are some equity-centered initiatives local leaders can consider from others across the country.

1. Use land ownership as a preservation tool

For Aaron Miripol, president and CEO of Urban Land Conservancy (ULC) — one of Mile High Connects’ partners — land ownership is a long lasting tool for creating equitable TOD. As a community land trust (CLT), ULC retains ownership of land it purchases near transit hubs and leases the structures on that land.

In one of its first deals, for instance, the organization bought a property that housed four residential buildings in order to ensure 62 apartment units next to the Sheridan Light Rail Station remained affordable. “So we own the ground — that’s how we protect our investment,” Miripol said, explaining how ULC purchased the land and signed a 99-year ground lease with a nonprofit developer that owns the apartments. Per the agreement, the rental units must remain affordable for a designated time period.

Community engagement has also emerged as a significant component to ensuring that each of ULC’s TOD projects meet residents’ specific needs. 48th and Race is a mixed-use project spanning six acres across a city block in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, with units affordable to residents earning 30 to 80% of Area Median Income. In the planning stages, ULC and its developer partner spent years listening to community members and learned that high-quality healthcare was a critical need.

As such, they partnered with a local nonprofit, the Tepeyac Community Health Center, to expand its services on the ground floor of the development. When the complex opens this fall, residents will “live above this health clinic — they can get their dental, they can get their checkups, it’s all there,” Miripol said.

While Washington, DC, boasts its own relatively young CLT, the Douglass Community Land Trust, there may be opportunities to further expand this model across the region.

2. Establish housing affordability mandates for transit agencies

In 2016, Washington state officials established the 80/80/80 rule, which requires that Sound Transit, the public transit agency serving the Seattle metropolitan area, offer 80% of its surplus properties to developers that will make at least 80% of units affordable for families earning 80% or less of the area median income.

In comparison, WMATA’s aforementioned 10-year strategic plan for TOD simply states that “projects must comply with local affordable housing requirements, which vary throughout the region.”

Even though the state requires that Sound Transit’s projects be affordable at 80% AMI or below, “we’ve always gone to lower AMI levels on the rental projects,” said Mara D’Angelo, a TOD manager at Sound Transit. “In Washington, the funding sources for affordable housing creation are very competitive. And so it’s atypical that a project wouldn’t at least provide 60% AMI and below — we’ve been lucky to be able to have projects include 30% and below and other affordability targets.”

Station House in Seattle, Washington. Image courtesy of the Seattle Office of Housing. 

The first project in Seattle to implement the 80/80/80 rule was Station House, which features 110 affordable rental units priced for households earning no more than 60% AMI. The mixed-use building is in the city’s most dense neighborhood, Capitol Hill — just steps away from a light rail station — and features over 1,300 square feet of community space on the ground floor.

Sound Transit currently has at least a half dozen similar projects underway in the region and plans to release RFPs for more later this year, according to D’Angelo.

3. Create a jurisdiction-wide policy to reduce displacement

To combat Seattle’s long history of colonialism, racial covenants, and redlining, the city’s housing department created a community preference policy. “This is an anti-displacement tool that has been going around to several cities. It’s been in New York, Oakland, Cambridge,” said Bin Jung, a strategic advisor with Seattle’s housing department.

Also known as a “right to return” policy, it requires that a certain percentage of units in affordable housing projects that receive public subsidies be set aside for residents with ties to the community. “It could be folks that either lived in the neighborhood previously and have moved out, folks that currently live in the neighborhood, or folks that had a connection to the neighborhood — either through ancestors or relatives,” Jung explains.

Similar to DC, this type of arrangement was originally implemented in a few developments. But as housing advocates began to push for a citywide mandate, the housing agency consulted with developers and community members to craft guidelines for a more wide-reaching policy.

“From the feedback, we heard it would be good if the city had some sort of process set up with the developer so they could check in about how the developers were planning to implement the community preference policy,” said Jung. “But we also heard that having the city be super involved and engaged in policy implementation might actually be a hindrance to it. So we took that into account as well to right-size the city’s involvement and to right-size the guidelines that we were putting out there.”

Jackson Heights,  courtesy of the Seattle Office of Housing.

The policy was implemented about a year ago and the housing agency has since utilized it in two rental buildings, one of which is in Jackson Heights, a historically Black neighborhood that has seen a lot of displacement. “They had 50% of the units set aside for that group of folks. They were able to meet that, and there are wonderful stories of folks who lived in the city and then moved out to the surrounding counties and are now able to move back to the city that they grew up in,” Jung said.

4. Be intentional

Regardless of which approaches the region might adopt, Zavala stresses the importance of practicing patience.

“ETOD definitely takes a lot of political will and a little bit of future thinking from advocates, city stakeholders, and the philanthropic community to see that while the development may not necessarily happen overnight, it will happen,” she says, adding that the end goal of ETOD should be to benefit the most vulnerable residents.

“We need to have our eyes towards keeping community in place, keeping long-term residents in place, and making sure that they aren’t displaced as a result of these same developments.”

This article is part of a limited series exploring equitable transit-oriented development, made possible with a grant from Amazon. Greater Greater Washington’s editorial department maintains editorial control and independence in accordance with our editorial policy. Our journalists follow the ethics guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Christina Sturdivant Sani is a proud DC native whose work has exposed disparities and injustices that permeate under-resourced communities. She finds joy in highlighting creative solutions in this rapidly changing city. As a coffee shop connoisseur, she has a list of more than 60 cafes that she's visited in the District. If you see her at your local shop, story ideas are welcome!