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Affordable housing a key consideration of commuter rail project

  • TJCOG study finds 27% of existing affordable housing in Wake, Durham and Johnston counties within a mile of rail corridor.
  • Rail project would help scores of people with modest means reach job centers.
  • If planned affordable housing units are built, the project would score the highest rating on the federal government’s scale on affordable housing for New Starts program.

AUG. 4, 2021 -- A majority of residents in Wake, Durham and Johnston counties are spending more than half of their incomes on housing and transportation, according to a recent Triangle J Council of Governments study on affordable housing opportunities within the corridor of the Greater Triangle Commuter Rail Project.

The average household in Durham spends 57 percent of its income on housing and transportation. In Wake County, that percentage is 56 and in Johnston County it’s 53. Households that spend more than 45 percent of their income on housing, utility and transportation are considered cost-burdened under most guidelines.

Investing in a high-quality transit network close to affordable housing would help many of those Triangle households reach a better spending balance, according to the TJCOG study.

“More than 40,000 households in the Triangle metro region have no car available,” says Charles Lattuca, president and CEO of GoTriangle, which is leading the commuter rail project for the region. “Fortunately, the Greater Triangle Commuter Rail Project would be the spine of our regional transit network that also will include several connected bus rapid transit projects and an expansion of bus service. Together, these projects will open up an amazing amount of access to opportunities for everyone across the Triangle.”

crtmap2.PNGThe commuter rail project, included in both Wake and Durham counties’ transit plans, would run up to 43 miles from West Durham to Garner or Clayton through major employment areas, connecting to world-class universities and employment areas and increasing job and educational opportunities for everyone in the Triangle.

Find out more about the project and sign up to become a Commuter Rail Insider at Through Aug. 31, groups, agencies, organizations or nonprofits also can request a presentation about the commuter rail project as part of the latest outreach effort. Please find a presentation request form here.


The TJCOG study found that 27% of the region’s available Legally Binding Affordable Housing (LBAR) is within a mile of the rail corridor, while the corridor itself makes up only 4% of the region’s land area. LBAR units have legally binding agreements to keep the housing affordable for a set period of time, sometimes permanently.

In Durham, 37 percent of the county’s LBAR units are within a mile of the rail corridor. In Wake, it’s 25 percent and in Johnston 4 percent.

There also are many opportunities to build more affordable housing. There are plans for 2,000 new affordable homes in downtown Durham alone. The rail project would serve this area of density and help scores of people with modest means reach job centers, the study found.

The Federal Transit Administration evaluates the relationship among transit, land use and housing affordability within transit corridors to decide which new transit investments to help pay for. Planners of the project are depending on the federal government’s criteria-driven New Starts program to pay 50 percent of the rail line’s cost.

A well-planned transit system offers access to medical, educational and job centers. The Greater Triangle Commuter Rail line would serve Duke University and Medical Center, downtown Durham, North Carolina Central University, Research Triangle Park, RTP, Morrisville, Cary, North Carolina State University and downtown Raleigh, among other areas.


The TJCOG analysis of affordable housing opportunities within the corridor is part of the final study phase before governing bodies decide early next year whether to pursue the federal funds to build the project.

The most commonly used measure of affordable housing is “area median income” or AMI, the level of income where half of households earn more and half earn less. “Low income” is pegged at 80% of AMI and “moderate income” is typically defined as between 80% and 120% of AMI.

crt-affordablehousing.PNGRegarding affordable housing availability in the rail corridor, here are highlights of what TJCOG found:

  • The number of current legally binding affordable housing units that serve households at 80% AMI or below along the commuter rail corridor is almost 6,200. About 3,300 are in Wake County, 2,700 in Durham County and 200 in Johnston County.
  • About half of those affordable units have permanent affordability restrictions.

TJCOG also looked at existing plans for more legally binding affordable housing units along the corridor. That information could help determine whether additional or relocated station areas would better serve low- and moderate-income households with access to transit. If these units were built and were included in efforts to secure federal funding for the project, the project would score the highest rating on the federal government’s affordable housing scale for New Starts Program projects.

In addition to legally binding affordable housing, there also is naturally occurring affordable housing or NOAH within a mile of the commuter rail corridor. The study found:


  • More than 22,000 naturally occurring affordable housing units within the corridor that serve households at 80% of the Average Median Income or below.
  • About 15,400 of those are in Wake County, 5,600 in Durham and 1,000 in Johnston.



Opportunity sites also were part of the TJCOG analysis. Opportunity sites are publicly owned parcels where affordable housing or stations could be built. Who owned the land and its total acreage were part of the criteria used to identify the parcels.

  • Wake County has 159 opportunity sites suitable for building affordable housing within a mile of the commuter rail corridor. Those parcels add up to 1,065 acres.
  • Durham County has 79 parcels with 336 total acres.
  • Johnston County has 16 parcels with 163 total acres.

Low- and moderate-income families tend to be more dependent on transit service so making sure there is room for them in station areas would increase ridership, making the commuter rail investment even more cost-effective. The Greater Triangle Commuter Rail Project includes existing areas of restricted and naturally occurring affordable housing, and our local governments have the opportunity to create even more.

“Taking full advantage of opportunities near transit will not happen by accident,” TJCOG says in its report. “Our solutions must be intentional and strategic, so that over time, we can look back and know we have done what we could to increase the chances for success.”

Read the TJCOG report here.