Urban Wire Spurring Housing Development Near Transit through Federally Funded Land Acquisition
Yonah Freemark
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Housing in the United States became even less affordable for the average American in 2023, thanks to high mortgage rates and sales costs that have risen more quickly than incomes. But housing costs aren’t alone in squeezing Americans’ wallets—food, medical care, and electricity also increased in cost. To reduce overall costs of living and address an insufficient housing supply, policymakers could promote transit-oriented development, which allows families to cut down on driving—a major expense for most residents.

Currently more of an ideal than a reality in much of the country, transit-oriented development makes up only a small share of US housing. People living in homes farther from transit—where housing costs are often lower—spend far more on transportation. Although cities have become more adept at transit-oriented development in recent years, almost nine times as many units were added far from transit stations as near to them over the past two decades.

One explanation for inadequate housing near transit is that transit agencies do not prioritize transit-adjacent housing development and lack a dedicated source of funding to acquire land for such projects. To help enable transit-oriented development, a federal land acquisition program that supplements transportation infrastructure grants could help transit agencies and local governments in acquiring properties to encourage housing development.

US cities are doing a better job linking housing to transit—but there is more work to be done

I examined housing growth by census tracts across US urban areas. I found that neighborhoods near stations that opened in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s had a lower rate of housing growth than other parts of their respective urban areas during the 10 or 20 years following station openings.

These trends have reversed since the 1990s, fortunately. Neighborhoods near stations that opened from 2000 to 2009 had housing growth by 2019 that was about 8 percentage points higher than similar neighborhoods with no transit access.


Yet that growth is inadequate to account for population change. I found that, in urban areas, tracts with transit stations added about 2 million housing units between 2000 and 2019. But those without stations added 17.6 million units. Too many new housing units are being added far from stations, increasing transportation costs for millions of Americans.

Jurisdictions and agencies are disincentivized from using federal funds for land acquisition

The federal government devotes almost $4 billion annually for the construction of new rail and bus lines through the competitive Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program. Though federal rules encourage mixed-use “joint development” projects near stations and prioritize CIG applicants (PDF) that propose projects in neighborhoods with higher densities and a higher share of affordable housing, integrating transit-oriented development with new transportation projects remains relatively rare. Indeed, the Federal Transit Administration notes that (PDF) few agencies “to date have included joint development-related costs” in their CIG proposals.

To understand this situation, I conducted interviews with federal and local officials involved in transit planning.

 A US Department of Transportation staffer noted, “Part of the challenge is that transit agencies aren’t really real estate agencies.… [Transit agencies] have this mission to get transit on the street, so getting them to think beyond transit is really difficult.” Therefore, when thinking about new bus and rail lines, staffers don’t focus on what housing can be built near them.

Transit agencies, even those interested in planning housing near stops, also lack adequate funding for anything other than the transit line construction itself. A second federal staffer, speaking to conditions in one city, said that the transit agency’s “intention [was] to do transit-oriented development, [but] real estate costs were rising,” so they did not acquire extra land for housing as part of their project. Transit agencies—facing rising infrastructure costs—don’t have money to spare. “I have not seen agencies buy extra land,” the staffer said, even though “that’s not to say they couldn’t.”

As a result, localities have difficulty targeting housing investments in areas near stations, which particularly hurts projects that involve subsidized affordable housing. One city official said that it’s difficult to compete with private investors for land, especially because property values often increase after a transit project is implemented. Though private entities often develop station-adjacent land they own, many simply sit on it, waiting for the right opportunity years or decades in the future, even when the need for more housing is apparent now. They may be particularly reluctant to develop when they face local zoning codes that restrict density around stops.

Local governments could help close the gap by using federally provided Community Development Block Grants, which allow land acquisition as an eligible use. Yet funding from these block grants has declined by more than two-thirds since the 1970s. Municipalities operating on a tight budget may struggle to allocate even a small share for housing-related land acquisition.

Federal support for land acquisition could improve the link between housing and transportation

Recent federal initiatives, including billions of dollars devoted to infrastructure projects and rules related to property disposition and low-cost loans, will likely enable greater investment in housing near transit. But those funds are unlikely to encourage transit agencies to identify and purchase land for housing specifically.

If the federal government hopes to spur further transit-oriented development, it could invest in a dedicated land acquisition program. This program’s funds could be used specifically to buy vacant or underused land, such as surface parking lots or one-story strip malls primed for redevelopment.

One promising option for such a program would be to provide grants directly to localities in association with the CIG program. Cities and transit agencies that receive funding for new lines could also receive an associated grant for land purchasing around stations. This type of federal fund would be particularly effective in generating housing construction if recipients were required to demonstrate that the relevant local government would rezone for high housing densities any land acquired.

With land on hand, localities and transit agencies could then implement public-private partnerships with developers through long-term ground leases that mandate a high level of housing production. Or they could combine land acquisition with social housing programs, such as those currently being piloted by Montgomery County, Maryland, and Atlanta, Georgia, both of which are developing new mixed-income apartments on public land. In either case, a federal program that allows for localities to purchase land near transit could help Americans reduce their cost of living and increase affordable housing options.


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Research Areas Land use
Tags Federal housing programs and policies Housing affordability Housing and the economy Housing markets Infrastructure Land use and zoning Transportation
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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