Finding Home: Does Light Rail Development Push Out Affordable Housing?

Sep 9, 2019

As cities consider building new rail lines and development around existing ones, you often hear concerns about the changes displacing low-income residents. Research by UNC Charlotte geographers challenges this assumption.

In an analysis of national data tracking residential moves, the researchers found little evidence that shows this happening. They’re also taking a look at what’s happening in Charlotte. That research is expected to be completed next summer, but so far they’ve been able to tease out some trends.

One of those researchers, Elizabeth Delmelle, joins WFAE "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf as part of our series Finding Home, which looks at affordable housing challenges.

Lisa Worf: Why'd you decide to study this topic?

Elizabeth Delmelle: We decided to study this topic because we've been hearing a lot of concerns that investments in new transit station leads to displacement of lower income residents who may stand to benefit the most from these new developments.

We'd looked at it from a national perspective over the long term, and we wanted to figure out: Is this something that automatically happens, as the way people kind of talk about it, or is it a rarity?

And so what we found was that's not the norm — that on average, lower income residents have not disproportionately left new transit neighborhoods across the U.S. over the long term.

A LYNX Blue Line train pulls away from J.W. Clay Station on North Tryon Street in this 2018 file photo.
Credit DAVID BORAKS / WFAE

Worf: How does that work, though? Because a lot of times with transit lines, property values go up, rent prices go up. How is that not leading to displacement of low-income residents?

Delmelle: Right. So that is what everybody thinks happens and most people are surprised when they hear our findings. We're not very popular people when we ... tell them what we found out.

But we've looked at this from a number of different angles, both nationally and at the Charlotte level, looking at a variety of data sets, and what we really uncovered is that transit is an amenity but it's not the amenity that causes this displacement.

If you just look at, for instance, the original Blue Line, and you go down to Pineville, the changes that happened around those stations are very different than the changes that happened immediately close to uptown. So, transit, in conjunction with all of these other amenities that are serving to increase demand for center city neighborhoods, may lead to displacement.

Worf: How so is that development different in Pineville than some of the closer-in neighborhoods?

A rider buys a light rail ticket at a LYNX Blue Line station in this 2018 file photo.
Credit DAVID BORAKS / WFAE

Delmelle: Around Pineville you may have park and ride stations and you don't have this associated transit-oriented development, so mixed use and walkable developments immediately around the transit station.

So, in those areas you really don't see much of an effect of the light rail on surrounding neighborhoods, whereas closer to uptown or on the original Blue Line, there was a lot of vacant land around those transit stations, which has been filled in by dense, walkable multifamily housing developments because of their proximity to uptown.

Worf: So, property values going up in those closer areas but not necessarily in the areas farther out like Pineville, you're saying?

Delmelle: Correct.

Worf: How do you want people who make the decisions around transit to look at your data?

Delmelle: So, one important finding in Charlotte is that we do find this significant effect downtown, right? You're adding an additional amenity in areas that already had gentrification pressures.

So, in those areas that are kind of primed for gentrification then the city or public officials need to do something to guard against displacement, because it's very likely that you add an additional amenity in terms of transit that things are going to propel at a very fast rate.

In other areas where we don't find this, there's still an opportunity to locate affordable housing for residents near transit kind of before these new developments get into place. So, a lot of the talk with developers or planners that we've had along this light rail extension, the conclusion is there's been sort of a missed opportunity to develop affordable housing close to transit, whereas these kind of higher-end apartments are being built in around there.