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Healthy Corridor For All?

February 02, 2012 By Emma Lucken, Undergraduate Research Fellow

We’ve written about why we love the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Line (CCLRT) between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. It will reduce auto dependence, revitalize the business sector, and provide residents easier access to health care, food, education, and—hopefully—jobs.

However, the area’s large Hmong, Somali, and African American communities worry that the spike in rent rates along the CCLRT could force many families to relocate. History warrants their suspicion: The Corridor’s African American Rondo neighborhood was devastated when I-94 literally divided the community. One example to the damage transportation projects around the country wreak every year on resident minorities who lack access to the planning process.

When again faced with a City Council rezoning plan that focused solely on transit-oriented development while ignoring health and equity implications, PolicyLink teamed up with TakeAction Minnesota and ISAIAH to begin the Healthy Corridor for All Health Impact Assessment (HIA). The HIA built relationships between technical advisors and the Corridor’s many ethnic groups while encouraging community leadership in science-based policy proposals for equitable land-use decisions.

They found much higher poverty and unemployment rates in the Central Corridor than in St. Paul and Ramsey County as a whole. Residents often lack access to local jobs because they do not meet the education requirements, and the jobs they do receive provide consistently lower-than-average incomes. The education gap will only increase with light rail, as the projected development creates more jobs with high education barriers while edging out manufacturing positions, which pay well and require fewer years of education.

After 55% of the Corridor’s industrial land has been rezoned to encourage high density residential and retail development, industrial businesses will likely sell and relocate to take advantage of the rising property values. While the several hundred manufacturing jobs at risk for relocation represent a small portion of the area’s total jobs, their loss only hurts the chances for residents with less education to secure a middle class income.

Ideally, workers at every education level would have access to jobs that pay enough to provide their families with food, health care, and other opportunities. Light rail does not counteract this goal; the investment it attracts could be used to create high-paying jobs for Corridor residents if we acknowledge the effects of current policy and look for options to offset the negative aspects of rezoning. The Central Corridor Funders Collaborative actively promotes one such option by providing grants to projects that support the local economy and communities—including a plan to create manufacturing jobs along the CCLRT.

While making it even harder for residents to find local high-paying jobs, current development patterns in the Corridor will also increase the percentage of income spent on housing. Property values within a quarter mile of the planned light rail stops have increased 8% as those elsewhere in the city declined 8%. Instead of benefiting from higher home values, most low-income residents rent. They will find it hard to absorb rising rent rates when 59% already spend more than 30% of their income on housing and 27% spend more than 50%.

Without public funding and incentives to ensure the preservation and creation of affordable housing, many of the Central Corridor’s most vulnerable residents will be displaced and its communities scattered. The St. Paul Housing Action Plan promises to preserve 399 subsidized housing units in the Corridor by 2013, but the city needs to do more.

The Healthy Corridor for All Community Steering Committee (CSC) recommended several strategies to protect residents by ensuring affordable housing. A density bonus program, for instance, would provide developers an incentive to provide a percentage of housing for residents who earn less than 80% of area median income. The bonus would increase with the percentage provided and the level of affordability.

A second proposal, targeted inclusionary zoning, aims to use the Corridor’s increasing property values to fund the development of affordable housing. The program would require mixed use and residential projects within a quarter mile of the light rail stops to either designate a set percentage of housing units as affordable or provide funding for the development of affordable options at alternative sites. The CSC also recommended codifying the commitment to affordable housing in the zoning ordinance as well as requiring Central Corridor developers to prioritize local applicants when hiring.

The St. Paul City Commission passed the rezoning plan last April—without the CSC’s proposals. True, it authorized feasibility studies on targeted inclusionary zoning and the density bonus program, and true, it created a workgroup to research and recommend strategies for the provision of affordable housing in the Corridor. However, the rezoning proposal should specifically acknowledge the city’s responsibility to protect existing communities.

The Healthy Corridor for All (HIA) reveals the effects of transportation improvements and the empowerment in cohesion and civic engagement when vulnerable communities are included in the policy debate. While the projected boom in public and private investment provides a wonderful opportunity for the Central Corridor’s diverse and low-income populations, we must continue to monitor light rail policies to ensure an equitable distribution of benefits.

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