Why Affordable Housing Advocates Should Care about the Purple Line


Over the years, a Montgomery-based transit advocacy group called Action Committee for Transit (ACT) has been advocating persistently and effectively for a new Metro rail line called the Purple Line that would run from Bethesda to Silver Spring and provide an East-West transit link across Montgomery County. I am a dues-paying member of ACT and live in Bethesda, but I must confess my support for the Purple Line was lukewarm. I commute from Bethesda to Manna, mostly on bicycle. The second choice is transit on days I do not bike. I avoid driving like the plague because I rather have a root canal than sit in traffic and I hate the idea of my idling car polluting the air.

But I was not a strong advocate for the Purple Line. I will not directly benefit from it for most of my travel. I also am a big fan of buses. In the 1990s, I chaired a transit advocacy group called MetroWatch. This was the time period of fiscal crisis in the District and cuts to bus service came fast and furious. I become a bus-first advocate because I saw how critical buses were to middle-income and low-income District residents.

However, I just finished reading Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism by Ben Ross and I am now a fervent supporter of the Purple Line (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/bross/). Ben was President of ACT for many years and is a strong advocate.

Given my affection for buses, I would wonder from time to time why proposals for Rapid Bus were not sufficient to generate the transit volume that the proposed light rail Purple Line would. In theory, rapid bus could possibly come close to light rail transit volume but our politics and culture do not mesh well with rapid bus. It is much easier politically to cut back on bus service and dismantle rapid bus than it is to eviscerate a light rail line once it is built. Culturally, our country may not be ready to adequately support rapid bus. The suburbs, as Ben points out, appeal to people’s egotism and thirst for status. Suburban folk are more likely to ride an elegantly designed light rail line than crowded buses. I don’t like it but Ben is probably right about that. Ben’s blog posts also show how relatively inexpensive the Purple Line would be.

There is also a powerful affordable housing reason to support the Purple Line. Ben describes in great detail how suburban zoning, particularly the emphasis on single family homes and the exclusion of apartments, has driven up housing costs in general and for low- and moderate-income households in particular. Currently, when inner city neighborhoods experience gentrification and become attractive, rents and home values are bid up so high because there are not many alternatives to city living that is less dependent on the automobile. In contrast, if we had more communities in the suburbs and city that were less typically suburban and had higher housing densities, there could be less price pressure and displacement associated with gentrification and demographic changes.

Well, why not just change suburban zoning to allow for more apartments and higher densities? The difficulty is political. There is just too much cultural resistance. On the other hand, if more heavy and light rail gets built, zoning changes become easier as people observe that higher densities work better near rail and that higher densities make rail and neighborhood revitalization more economically viable. Build it, they will come, and the neighborhood will change for the better. Is that pie in the sky or realistic? Based on what has happened in DC and Bethesda neighborhoods with which I am familiar, I think Ben is onto something here.

Communities surrounding the Purple Line are likely to experience increases in housing prices as development heats up after the Purple Line is constructed (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/21888/behold-how-the-purple-line-corridor-is-changing/). Dan Reed suggests extending the price restrictions on low-income rental housing near the future line. Like Ben, Dan states that more housing development could ease the pressure on prices.

In any case, go Purple Line! It might just help affordable housing, even here in the District. Is the book perfect? Not quite. The prose can be difficult in spots if you are not a planner or transportation junkie. Also, Ben knocks buses a little more than I would like. However, he does support buses as essential to a viable transit network (but not as a replacement for rail).  On balance, if you want to understand suburbs, what changes we need, and you are looking for a good read, pick up Ben’s book.

Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.

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