Buy land now for affordable housing later, Tucson told

2014-08-17T21:00:00Z 2014-08-17T21:51:17Z Buy land now for affordable housing later, Tucson toldBy Emily Bregel Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Developers know transit accessibility is a major draw for potential homebuyers, so land values tend to soar once high-capacity transportation corridors are established, planners say.

That means city and county leaders in Tucson should purchase land before those corridors are built to ensure all residents can afford housing near transit, said Jacob Bintliff, senior associate with the BAE Urban Economics in San Francisco.

“Use it or lose it,” said Bintliff, who authored a study released Friday on the potential for mixed-use and transit-oriented development in eastern Pima County. “You’re not going to get those (sites) back once they get developed.”

Dozens of local planners, architects, developers and housing advocates attended the presentation at the Drachman Institute, which commissioned the study. Some results, including a local employee survey of transportation preferences, will be released next month, said Marilyn Robinson, associate director of the Drachman Institute, the outreach and research arm of the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture and Planning and Landscape Architecture.

In the coming decades, much of the new housing development in Pima County should be placed near public transit to meet anticipated demand, the study says.

The population in Pima County is expected to reach 1.4 million by 2045, meaning 175,000 new households will be needed. And 96,000 of them are expected to want easy access to high-capacity transportation, the study says.

That projection is based on an extrapolation of Census data: Researchers looked at how many Pima County households today either have no car, have more workers than cars or already use public transit, then classified those as having a preference for living near transit.

Statewide, the population is expected to double in the next 20 years, said Michael Trailor, director of the Arizona Department of Housing, which funded the housing demand study.

“Does that mean we’re going to have twice as many freeways, twice as many cars and we’re going to continue to build single-family homes out into the desert at 3.5 units to the acre, and sprawl from Tucson to Phoenix to Gila Bend?” he asked.

The alternative is to build smart in urban cores, saving residents money on transportation, bringing workers closer to where the jobs are and reducing impact on the environment, he said.

The demand for affordable housing is high in low-wage Tucson. In South Tucson, 64 percent of households spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing. Inside Tucson city limits, the figure is 57 percent. When so many families struggle to pay for basic necessities, that undermines their ability to support the rest of the economy, said Bintliff, the study’s author.

Tucson planners and housing advocates have increasingly considered the cost burden of placing “affordable” housing on the outskirts of town, which often shifts residents’ housing costs to increased vehicle and fuel expenses. Linking those homes to urban centers through public transit, and developing housing along those routes, would benefit people of all income levels, Robinson said.

Having a robust supply of people who regularly patronize public transit could boost its reliability and efficiency, making it appealing for those who could afford multiple cars but prefer public transit.

“We need people of all-income levels to want to use public transit,” she said.

In 2009, the Pima Association of Governments created a high-capacity transit plan that envisioned bus rapid-transit — fast-moving bus routes with dedicated lanes — and light-rail and commuter-rail routes linking outlying areas to Tucson’s downtown and major employers. The plan also envisioned an extended route for the modern streetcar, which opened to the public last month.

The “wish list” of transit corridors still has no funding sources, but the plan should help spur smart development along those potential routes, Robinson said.

Making transit-oriented, mixed-income development feasible for developers might take loosening some zoning requirements, such as those that require a minimum number of parking spaces per unit, Phoenix developer Brian Swanton said after the presentation.

Some “antiquated” zoning requirements mandate 1.5 parking spaces per unit, which Swanton said doesn’t make sense for developments geared towards minimizing vehicle use, and adds expenses for developers.

A newly created downtown zoning code in Phoenix gives developers a pass on some regulations, such as minimum parking spaces, if they meet criteria like using green-building techniques and offering affordable, higher-density housing in the urban core, he said. His company’s affordable senior housing development, the Lofts at McKinley, has 60 apartments on less than one acre of land, all within walking distance of the light rail.

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at 807-7774 or ebregel@tucson.com. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel

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