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September/ October 2010 Housing Newsletter

The Transit Factor in Affordable Housing

By Christopher Lazaro

 When it comes to the value of real estate, nothing says it like the well-known mantra: location, location, location.  Homes that are located in a thriving community—close to stable employment, top-rated schools, recreation, and services—are typically worth more than homes lacking in those areas.  But, what about transportation?  Certainly, homes located in close proximity to desired amenities are in greater demand than those farther away, but how do alternative transportation options affect neighborhood development?

 Providing diverse transportation options, including walking, biking, bus, and rail, are critical components of a truly integrated community.  A fully modal transportation plan allows residents of all incomes and lifestyles to participate equitably in both work and leisure.  New urbanism and transit-oriented development (TOD) are examples of recent planning concepts that foster this type of transportation freedom.

 New urbanism is a movement in neighborhood design which employs some of the best features of old urban areas—particularly those areas designed before the advent of the automobile—while still accommodating motor vehicles.  Many successful neighborhoods built in the last 20 years utilize new urbanist strategies, such as narrow lots, rear-facing garages with alley access, large front porches that are closer to the sidewalk, narrow streets to slow traffic, and close-in shopping and schools for added convenience.  These communities prioritize walkability and aesthetics over vehicle travel, in hopes of reducing traffic.

This photo illustrates a functioning alley with rear access garages, a common
design feature of new urbanism.

 Transit-oriented development (TOD) also maintains walkability as a primary goal, but, as the name implies, incorporates design strategies that promote the use of public transit.  TODs are typically located within one-half mile of a permanent transit station, are high in density, feature attractive public spaces, and offer a reduced number of parking spaces to encourage vehicle independence.

Some units at this transit-oriented development in Pasadena,
bridge directly over the Gold Line commuter rail.

Cities throughout the country are taking note of the importance—and market success—of new urbanism and TOD.  Mueller, a redevelopment of a former airport in East Austin, applies many new urbanist principles that have contributed to its success.  Since construction began in 2007, Mueller continues to outpace the real estate market in sales, even as the economy weakened.  Orenco Station, a TOD in Hillsboro, Oregon, has achieved great success as well, increasing housing density in a largely suburban area and boosting light rail transit use.  Residents of Orenco Station not only use transit more often than other area residents, they tend to walk and bike more as well.

 More than just for convenience, though, transit-connected communities aim to make housing affordable for families who might otherwise be forced to absorb the costs of owning a vehicle.  According to Reconnecting America’s Center for Transit-Oriented Development, “while the average household spends 19 percent of its income on transportation, households with good access to transit spend just 9 percent.”  Transportation spending could be as high as 55 percent for very-low-income families without transit access.  The potential savings of living in transit-oriented development could help some families transition from renting to homeownership; and, in extreme cases it could be the difference between homelessness and housing stability.

 While developers are seeing the light when it comes to new urbanist and transit-oriented development, implementing these types of projects is not easy.  According to a report by Reconnecting America:

  • “Land prices around stations are high or increase because of speculation once a new transit line is announced.
  • Affordable housing developers don’t have the capital to acquire land before the prices go up and then hold it until it’s ready to develop.
  • Funding for building affordable housing is limited.
  • Mixed-income and mixed-use projects require complex financing structures.
  • Sites for TOD projects often require land assembly and rezoning, which can lead to lengthy acquisition and permitting processes, which increase development costs.
  • Parking requirements for TOD are unnecessarily high, which also drives up costs.
  • Community opposition to density and affordable housing is hard to overcome.”

Several cities which have pioneered in TOD provide valuable lessons which can be gleaned by others hoping to offer transportation flexibility to potential homebuyers.  Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, created a TOD Response Team which helps developers navigate the complexities of permitting, public improvements, and financial assistance.  The Minneapolis-St. Paul area emphasized the importance of good coordination between “…city staff, [TOD] corridor residents and the private sector…”  And, Portland, Oregon noted that balancing affordability needs with amenities is vital, as is creating incentives for both for-profit and not-for-profit builders to develop housing that is affordable.

 Waco is still behind other US cities when it comes to developing neighborhoods around transit, partially because the city does not have a fixed transit system, such as light rail.  With the Greater Downtown Master Plan now being finalized, however, Waco has a tremendous opportunity to be proactive in its approach to TOD in the coming years.  Chris Evilia, Director of Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, echoed the need for more TOD in the area. 

 “We don’t have the resources to ensure adequate mobility from where people are to all the services they need,” Evilia said.  “With 1 in 3 jobs located along the Highway 6 corridor, and the affordable housing primarily in East, North, and South Waco, we need to correct that disconnect.” 

 With a sustainable development plan also on the horizon for the six-county area surrounding Waco, the hope is to close the gap between where people live and where jobs are located, all in an effort to restore and preserve both our quality of life and of our environment.  “If we can get people to take short trips using something other than a car, it helps a lot [in reducing emissions],” said Evilia.  Considering the role of transit in affordable housing could just be the ticket to that goal.

To learn more, read the report, Realizing the Potential: Expanding Housing Opportunities Near Transit, at

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Viewpoint: With John Alexander 

Question #1:

One of the most significant barriers to affordable housing throughout the nation seems to be its deteriorating housing stock.  To what extent do you think this is true for the Waco community?

 Waco has a very serious issue with deteriorating housing stock in the inner city neighborhoods where Habitat for Humanity works.  Many of these homes are low-cost rental houses.  Others are owner-occupied by elderly or low-income families that do not have the resources to maintain them.  The cost of upkeep, repairs, or renovation for these homes can be very high.  With the new lead-based paint regulations that went into effect in April, the cost is even higher.  Another issue with older homes is the high cost of heating and cooling the house.  Older homes have little or no insulation and other issues that make it costly to condition the home.  The new weatherization program that is part of the stimulus package has been helpful for some homeowners.

 In recognition of the challenge that a deteriorating housing stock presents to our community, Waco Habitat for Humanity is beginning a new program, called the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.  To begin with, we will expand our Ramps and Rails program, which eliminates architectural barriers for disabled homeowners.  We also will begin doing roof repair and replacement for very low-income, elderly residents.  Finally, we are working with the City of Waco to acquire homes that are red-tagged and beyond repair.  The City tears them down and we build a new home on the lot, which is sold to one of our partner families through a zero-interest mortgage.

 Even though this issue is a challenging one, I am encouraged by the number of homes that are being purchased and renovated in some of the inner city neighborhoods.  My family purchased a home built in the 1930’s and we have been slowly renovating it over the years, improving the energy efficiency and bringing systems up to code.  I’ve seen a lot of other families doing this as well, especially in North and South Waco.  Working together, we can tackle this problem.

Question #2:

It is great to hear that families are beginning to preserve some of the architecture of Waco’s earlier homes.  Can you briefly describe what that process looks like for those who might be interested in doing the same thing, whether here or in another community?

 Waco Habitat’s work with low-income owners of older homes will begin with critical home repair that impacts the safety and health of the homeowner.  By providing services such as roof repair and replacement, replacing rotten floor, or addressing serious electrical or plumbing issues, Habitat can enable low-income homeowners to remain in their homes.  This kind of work is not as volunteer friendly, so we will be relying more on subcontractors to complete the repairs.  Next year, we plan to expand our program to include exterior home beautification, which will include painting and yard clean up.  This work will be done primarily by volunteers.  We hope to be able to provide a means for churches, civic organizations, student groups and others to pitch in to help improve a neighborhood.  Habitat for Humanity affiliates around the nation are implementing similar programs to broaden the services offered to the community.

 Another important aspect of the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative is working with other agencies.  Habitat will continue to build strong relationships with other organizations so that we can each serve the community in our own ways.  By working together, we can ensure our efforts make the greatest impact.

Question #3:

I agree that community collaborations are a key component to making a lasting impact on an area.  What would be your advice to anyone wanting to be a part of that impact here in Waco or in their own neighborhood?

 The best advice I have for someone wanting to make an impact in their own neighborhood here in Waco is to become active in their local Neighborhood Association.  Waco HFH works with Neighborhood Associations now and we plan to expand these partnerships as we increase our services.  No one knows better what a neighborhood needs than its own residents.  Other than that, I’d advise people to join with their communities of faith, civic groups or other organizations to find ways to volunteer in the community.  It really is rewarding work.

To learn more about Habitat for Humanity’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, click below:


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Local Homeowners' Worlds Changed by Youth Volunteers

By Christopher Lazaro


Never underestimate the power of youth.  That is the message that thousands of teens and young adults throughout the country sent this summer as crews of volunteers ventured into communities to replace roofs, paint houses, and build wheelchair ramps. 

 World Changers, a faith-based volunteer organization, sent teams to 99 cities this summer, including one sent here to Waco from July 12-16.  The Waco crew split into smaller groups to complete 18 remodeling projects in the Brook Oaks neighborhood, while enduring temperatures in the upper 90s.  The volunteers began each work day as early as 7 AM, worked through until about 3:30 PM, then slept at a local church which provided activities and a shower trailer.

 City of Waco’s Housing and Community Development Services helped make the project a reality by providing over $40,000 in paint, lumber and roofing materials.  Waco Community Development Corporation served as the Agency Coordinator for this year’s team, identifying projects for them to complete.  “I drove around the neighborhood looking for projects and handed out applications to homeowners,” said Mike Stone, Executive Director of Waco CDC, “but getting applications back meant meeting with them face-to-face.”  In fact, once the team began construction, previously skeptical homeowners saw the work being done and wondered if they would be back next year to do repairs on their homes.

 Plans are already in place for next year’s volunteer team, expected to work in East Waco from July 18-22, 2011.  Waco Habitat for Humanity also plans to help facilitate their work, and will be looking to identify projects in that area soon.  If you, or someone you know, is a homeowner in East Waco and might be interested in a volunteer group working on your home next summer, please contact Waco Habitat for Humanity by visiting their website (click below:)


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