Saturday, January 12, 2013

Transit Oriented Development for Whom?

Source: Metro Joint Development Program Fact Sheet

Have you ever been to the Del Mar Station in Pasadena off the Metro Gold Line? The train slides into a pretty large apartment complex which was finished in 2007. According to Metro it's a 3.56 acre site, with 347 apartments and 11,000 square feet of retail. That makes for quite a bit of residential density, 241 housing units per hectare (97 units per acre) to be exact.

Sounds great right? Adding new housing in an expensive region and putting high density development near quality transit are good ideas. The station is walkable to quite a few interesting things and makes very efficient use of land. Unfortunately, there's one major problem. These apartments are not for people with light wallets. The cheapest unit advertised on Del Mar Station's website rents for $1,798/month. That's a studio apartment by the way. For a bit of context, at that rent a household would need to have after-tax income of around $65,000 a year to not overpay for housing (i.e. to not spend more than 1/3 of its income on housing).

Meanwhile the median per capita income in Pasadena is $41,462 and just $26,349 in Los Angeles County as a whole according to the 2011 American Community Survey (table B19301). Workers with earnings who reported transit as their principal means of transportation to work have lower median per capita incomes: $26,770 in Pasadena and $15,476 in Los Angeles County (2011 ACS, table B08121).

To be fair, 21 of the 347 units (6%) are reserved as "affordable" according to Metro. However, it is clear that for the most part, Del Mar Station is out of reach for a typical LA transit rider. So what can be done to avoid these affordability problems in future TOD projects? Developers could build smaller units (some of the studios in Del Mar Station are over 800 square feet for example), cities could reduce or eliminate their off-street parking requirements and establish more aggressive requirements for affordable housing set asides, and the public at the state and federal levels could spend more on rent subsidies for people with low incomes.

As an urban form that is more sustainable than sprawl, Del Mar Station is a success. But on the social equity front, it leaves a lot to be desired. TOD can't just be about gentrification. It has to be accessible to the people who would benefit the most from it: people who actually ride transit.