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Preserving Affordability and Access in Livable Communities: Subsidized Housing Opportunities Near Transit and the 50+ Population

Study by AARP, Reconnecting America and National Housing Trust explores impact of expiration of contracts for federally subsidized units

Executive Summary


A livable community has affordable and appropriate housing, supportive features and services, and adequate mobility options for people, regardless of age or ability. As communities address the general shortage of affordable housing, preserving affordable housing in transit-oriented developments (TODs) is one of the challenges that communities can address to increase their livability.

TODs are compact, walkable, mixed-use communities that are developed around high-quality public transportation. Residents often prize these places for the advantages created by the proximity to transportation and other amenities. One consequence of this desirability is that it can increase land and property values, exacerbating housing affordability challenges.

As policymakers try to extend the benefits of TODs to affordable housing locations, they must ensure that those benefits are available to people of low and moderate incomes and to those with different mobility challenges and needs. Policies must ensure that these developments provide both housing and transportation options and a range of features that allow people to retain independence as they age.


This study analyzed the location of affordable housing in 20 metropolitan areas across the United States. This was done through the mapping of federally subsidized rental apartments in each area and measuring the amount of that housing within certain distances of transit. Five areas were chosen as case studies to provide more information on the challenges and benefits of different locations of affordable housing, including site visits to affordable housing properties near and far from transit and interviews with residents age 50 and older.

The following metropolitan areas were analyzed in this report:

Atlanta,  Los Angeles,  Salt Lake City, Baltimore,  Miami,  San Francisco, Boston,  Minneapolis/St. Paul, Seattle, Charlotte,  New York City,   Washington, DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Phoenix, Denver,  Portland (Oregon), Houston,  St. Louis.

Combining the quantitative analysis and qualitative analysis allowed a unique and thorough look at different types of housing locations across the country. Together, these methods allowed a detailed exploration of whether affordable rental housing near quality transit is available for low-income older people and an examination of how different locations meet their needs.


  • A substantial number of affordable apartments (more than 250,000) are located within one-half mile of public transit in these 20 metropolitan areas (nearly 200,000 are within one-quarter mile), but more than two thirds of the federal subsidies that keep these apartments affordable will expire within the next five years.

The future of existing housing is threatened as increasing demand near transit puts upward pressure on land prices. After contracts expire, housing owners may convert these units to market-rate housing, and the loss of these federally subsidized apartments will exacerbate the already short supply of subsidized housing. As shown in the following chart, in three metropolitan areas (San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, Seattle), more than 60 percent of potentially threatened housing is within one-half mile of transit, and more than 50 percent is within one-quarter mile. In half of the areas studied, at least 40 percent of that housing is within one-half mile of transit.

  • Subsidized housing meets a crucial need for residents with few housing options, but the additional benefits of proximity to transit are widely enjoyed only when transit is accessible, safe, and easy to use.
  • To better enable older persons to age in place, affordable housing must be both well served by quality public transit and within walkable distances of amenities and services.
  • Transit proximity alone is not enough.

Residents of affordable housing in compact neighborhoods benefited from dense urban development near amenities and were able to walk or take transit to the places they needed to go. In well-planned environments such as downtown Minneapolis, residents of all ages, including those 80 and older, were able to enjoy these benefits. Affordable housing near transit can have significant benefits for older residents, particularly when

  • It is located in safe, walkable neighborhoods with access to services, and
  • Transit is nearby, frequent, accessible, and takes residents where they need to go.

These benefits can be compromised when some of these conditions are not met. For example, the mobility of lower income older persons in Miami was compromised because of a lack of reliable and accessible bus service. The residents of a senior housing building in Cleveland could not easily access their nearby rail station because of a steep and difficult staircase at the entrance to the station. A fear of nearby crime among residents in several locations diminished their willingness to leave their building’s grounds. In areas far from transit, areas with few community features and services nearby, and areas with poor transit service, losing mobility can mean losing independence.

Certain resident characteristics and locations maximize benefits, as the figure below illustrates:


There are three areas that public policy must address at all levels to ensure that affordable housing near transit is available and useful to low-income older people. While some policy solutions require additional funding, others can be addressed through better planning and program integration. Three public policy goals and strategies to achieve them are


Given the shortage of affordable housing, federal, state, and local governments must preserve the subsidized housing that currently exists, particularly in areas near transit.

Strategies to preserve affordable housing include

  • Increase federal, state, and local funding for affordable housing, including funding for the project-based Section 8 and Section 202 housing programs;
  • Allocate funding to preserve affordable housing in transit-rich areas;
  • Develop affordable housing acquisition funds, especially for properties near transit; and
  • Develop “early warning systems” for properties with expiring federal subsidies.


Housing policy and implementation traditionally are developed independent of land use and transportation planning. Disconnected silos are inefficient, expensive, and prevent maximizing the potential benefit of harmonized and integrated housing, transit, and land use planning, both for communities and individuals.

Strategies to improve community planning include

  • Integrate transit and land use planning in funding criteria for affordable housing and transportation investments;
  • Encourage planning bodies to make land use and housing decisions that optimize transit investments and support TOD;
  • Adopt local and regional zoning practices that encourage compact, mixed-income, mixed-use development;
  • Employ targeted financial tools to preserve and create affordable housing near transit; and
  • Design “complete streets” that accommodate not only drivers but also pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit users of all ages and abilities.


For an individual user, public transportation must be accessible and accommodate one’s physical impairments and limitations, go where one needs to, and be reliable. In areas where transit does not meet these criteria, nondrivers may be isolated and have a diminished quality of life compared with those who have more options.

Strategies to improve public transportation include

  • Increase federal, state, and local funding for transportation alternatives;
  • Expand local and regional transportation financing alternatives;
  • Focus on comprehensive multimodal transportation systems to maximize access; and
  • Increase accessibility to transit by removing physical impediments in transit and areas near transit.


Making the benefits of TOD available to residents at all income levels is a significant policy challenge. There is a long-term shortage of affordable housing in many cities, and existing affordable housing near transit may be lost as federal subsidies expire.

Investing in affordable housing near transit is important, not only because it is one way to create more livable communities, but also because it supports other national policy goals. As communities look to develop more “green” and environmentally responsible policies, they may look to TOD and other smart growth practices to solve some of the issues related to reliance on the automobile. These practices can have side effects, including the potential for increased housing costs. However, when planned and implemented with the recommendations listed above, these policies can be used to create communities that are both affordable to a wide range of residents and environmentally responsible.

Finally, it takes time to develop housing, establish public transit, and attract the services necessary to create livable communities. To be ready for the needs of a rapidly expanding older population, planners and policymakers must work now to ensure that both existing and emerging TOD communities benefit people of all ages. Adopting policies similar to those above are important steps in expanding the benefits of livable communities to more Americans.