“I don’t even want to talk about it,” said the late twenty-something urban planning consultant sitting next to me at one of the many hip coffee shops cropping up in New Orleans’ Garden District. Typical of most college aged students on their spring break, by the fourth day of my visit to New Orleans, my group of friends and I had spent a majority of our time wandering about the French Quarter and old jazz and bar district. As we wandered about the meticulously preserved French-colonial architecture and enjoyed beignets in pleasant, green plazas, I grew more and more suspicious that these neat pockets of tourist friendly zones were a gross misrepresentation of the financially drained, slow to recover New Orleans I had read about. My spontaneous conversation with two quasi-public planners confirmed these suspicions. Assuring me that summarizing the realistic state of neighborhood recovery and reconstruction would take all day, they relayed that city government is an exasperatingly slow moving machine in regards to rebuilding public infrastructure and protecting land values in the worst affected residential areas. But I would have to see it for myself, if I really wanted to understand, they told me.
Fortunately, that afternoon, my friends and I were scheduled to take a tour of the Lower 9th Ward with Jordon Pollard, family friend and Design Manager of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s ‘Make It Right’ organization. Given my quest for answers, this visit was well timed; Make It Right was founded by Brad Pitt in 2007, as direct response to the city’s failure to protect and rebuild one of New Orleans’ most challenged neighborhoods. Working in collaboration with the displaced residents of the 9th Ward and over 21 world-renowned architects, Make It Right has rebuilt over 100 homes to replace some of the thousands of homes destroyed as a result of failed human engineering when the levees broke during the storm. Relying on a variety of foundations and corporate partners to provide new housing to residents of the 9th Ward, the organization attests that they “… have learned valuable lessons about how to change the low cost, low quality paradigm… we’ve proven that you can build inspiring homes that are healthy and sustainable for about the same price as conventional low-income housing.” Having pledged to build 100 homes from the get-go, economy of scale enabled the organization to use materials and methods in compliance LEED’s Platinum standards, guided by the Cradle to Cradle philosophy that the built environment should honor the respect and dignity of the residents and produce more energy than they consume.
There is visible evidence of Make It Right’s commitment to rebuilding community- not just homes- when you walk around the Lower Ninth Ward. Children play in puddles in front yards, volunteers work in the community garden and parents sit on the front porches of their state-of-the-art homes. However, local frustration with the cities’ sluggishness to rebuild and the federal government’s failure to adequately support reconstruction is also tangible. Outside of Make It Right’s radius of permeable streets, bio swales and happy front porch dwellers, at least every other lot remains vacant and the streets are dotted with pot holes 5 feet in diameter. It’s disheartening to realize that Make It Right’s efforts are in some ways a micro chasm of what I witnessed in New Orleans historic and tourist districts; deliberate investment in the right places, by the right people can easily create the illusion that pervasive change is underway. But even residents of Make It Right’s new community aren’t buying it. In the front yard of Mr. Robertson’s* home topped with solar panels, a sign leans against the base of a poll bearing the American flag: “We want our country to love us as much as we love our country. The strength of our community belongs to us all… Rebuild New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Cross the Canal AND Tennessee Street.” Pulling out of his driveway in his pickup, Mr. Robertson rolls down his window and stops next to my group. “You can take pictures,” he says.
* Name changed
The field of housing development, particularly high-density development, has seen many faces and known many facets. In the past, high-density developments were primarily cost-driven, and they focused on merely creating housing for a large number of individuals, instead of creating homes. Today, the focus of development is on the community, on creating spaces in which individuals and families can lead full and sustainable lives. Ideas such as New Urbanism and Transit-Oriented Developments have this community concept at the forefront. Walkability, mixed-use-mixed-income, green or open spaces, pedestrian or transit orientation, and a focus on the public realm are ideas driving today’s affordable and high-density housing industries. These innovations in design, and the systems thinking surrounding affordable and dense housing, are important to be aware of and understand because they make drastic, positive impact on affected communities and individuals.
A concept that has recently started getting attention and gaining momentum is New Urbanism. This design movement promotes walkability within mixed-use, traditional neighborhood structures that support planning for green and open public spaces. New Urbanists hope that these practices will increase quality of life by creating spaces that support and uplift the individuals living there. Take at look at the principles of New Urbanism as explained on their website:
New Urbanism, though first practiced in the 1980s, is still a relatively new idea. High-density developments of the past focused on housing the largest number of people for the least costs, often not taking into account factors like the ones that New Urbanism centers itself around. One of the most famous examples of a new type of dense housing is the Pruitt-Igoe Development, built in the 1950s. Pruitt-Igoe was a large public housing project in St. Louis, comprised of 33 high-rise, concrete structures with nearly 3,000 apartments. Because of its isolation and high concentration of poverty, the development became an area known for its crime and segregation.
Pruitt-Igoe is known as a failure within affordable housing, and developers have learned from the mistakes of this project. Today New Urbanism can be seen in recent projects across the United States like the Orenco Station development outside of Portland, Oregon, which has received much praise for its innovation and creativity, and is a well-known up-and-coming Transit –Oriented Development (TOD). Orenco Station is built along the MAX line in Hillsboro, allowing residents to travel to and from Portland easily. This project has a mix of townhomes and live/work units among narrow streets, town centers, and green spaces, and it has been praised as a trailblazer in infill and TOD housing.
Communities like Orenco Station are being developed across the country, but that does not mean that hope is lost for existing communities that don’t reflect the ideas of New Urbanism. In Fairfax, Virginia, Tysons Corner is being redeveloped to incorporate new innovations and systems. Developers hope to transform what is now a disjointed region including a shopping mall, offices, and suburban neighborhoods into a more walkable urban center where people can live, work, and shop easily, and reduce the need for cars.
New Urbanism is more than the next big thing in development design. It is a set of principles shaping a new way of living that will hopefully become the model of higher-density developments across the nation. It views housing not just as a number of units, a style of architecture, or location of a site, but as a system of people and processes. This way of thinking about development allows a community to grow in ways that create more sustainable, safer, higher quality, and more efficient living.
Here we are in 2015 and affordable housing is still a major concern. A recently released HUD report on Worst Case Housing Needs, says that things got better from 2011-2013 for the hardest to house but we have a long way to go. One of these populations that is getting more and more attention is the plight of homeless Veterans. Cities and states across the country are vowing to end homelessness among Veterans by the end of the year. Progress is being made.
Over the course of the next couple of months, students in the Advanced Housing Seminar at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, are exploring how the structural and social alternatives for ending homelessness in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Using the combined talents and expertise of architectural, engineering, urban planning, and policy students, designs and strategies are being generated that push the envelope. You will be reading about their thoughts about homelessness and affordable housing generally.
The historic preservation movement has long been eschewed as elitist, expensive, and certainly at odds with affordable housing options. It is sometimes cited that historic preservation is too expensive, and not energy efficient. However, shifting preferences (“back to the city” movement, greater appreciation of quality construction) coupled with the rise of the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit (HRTC) are beginning to change our attitudes towards historic preservation. I believe that preservation of our existing housing stock is the “smartest” growth there is, and provides better affordable housing opportunities as well.
America is a prosperous nation that is failing to meet the housing needs of its citizens. In the past 20 years, America has undergone drastic changes in its approach to providing affordable and adequate housing to its poorest citizens. The federal government no longer builds public housing - subsidies and tax incentives to private developers, CDBG funds, and rental assistance now shape our affordable housing tactics.
This issue is not solely limited to our nation’s poor. There is a crisis in affordable “workforce housing” for our teachers, police officers, nurses - those whose services we depend on, yet can’t afford to live near their place of employment and are priced out of all but the lowest cost-to-income markets (see Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing: The Missed Connection).
The housing problem has generally been seen as an urban issue; however, since the recent housing crisis, we have seen more families struggling in suburbs and non-metropolitan areas. It affects renters and homebuyers, the young and the old. It is obvious that America needs affordable housing options - and the typical approach has been new construction made “affordable” though either subsidies or low-quality construction. And from a policy perspective, we continue to incentivize this type of housing and development; however, the market usually dictates location - often “in the fringes,” compounding the issue of sprawl and reinforcing automobile-dependency.
Seen as an environmentally-sensitive alternative to traditional construction, movements such as LEED, Smart Growth, New Urbanism and Low Impact Development all tout sustainability as their guiding principles. And there are times when this type of new construction and development is appropriate; however, it is not “smart” to grow at the expense of our viable resources already extant in downtowns and neighborhoods. It is akin to saying “I’m totally into sustainability, being “green”, etc....” but really all you do is recycle and shop at Whole Foods.
If we are going to talk sustainability, historic preservation really makes the most sense. Donovan Rypkema, a preservationist with a no-nonsense view of preservation cites many benefits - economic, environmental, civic/cultural that preservation can generate.
When we preserve, restore, revitalize, or otherwise put use back into a building, it can be seen as the antithesis to sprawl. Open space, farmland, wildlife habitat are all saved when we choose historic preservation. Additionally, localities benefit financially because no new infrastructure is required (as opposed to new development, requiring new water and sewer lines, streets, curbs, gutters, etc.).
Reinforces Density and Mixed Use
Don’t we find it ironic that New Urbanists and advocates of Smart Growth promote principles that are already inherent in many of our historic neighborhoods and communities? This stuff isn’t revolutionary! Historic neighborhoods were built to accommodate a variety of uses and were scaled to the human, not to the car. Planners today tout mixed-use development because it encourages a mixture of uses and activity, creating vibrancy and diversity in the streetscape. Historic neighborhoods can also accommodate a combination of income levels - from renters to home/shop owners. Because of the density and mixture of uses, historic neighborhoods also reinforce the interconnection of residential, retail, office, and manufacturing activities (pre-Euclidean zoning patterns).
Business Incubator and Local Dollars
Eighty-five percent of all new jobs in America are created by small businesses. From an economic development perspective, historic buildings serve as perfect incubators for small business. They can offer flexible space and affordable rent in locations that are desirable to customers - downtown or in their own neighborhood. Vacant, buildings brought back to life are also brought back as tax-generating assets for a community (for more information, see Why Historic Preservation is Smart Growth).
Additionally, while new construction does generate jobs, it also generates a lot of waste that goes into landfills. Rehabilitation of existing buildings uses significantly less materials and uses more labor (read: jobs... skilled jobs). The materials and energy saved when restoring vs. new construction is significant. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation says, “the greenest building is the one already built.”
Specifically As Affordable Housing
Contrary to popular belief, historic preservation and affordable housing can go hand in hand. Studies show that over 60% of houses in older and historic neighborhoods have shopping within one mile, public transportation is available to residents in nearly 60% of older and historic neighborhoods, and that older homes are more affordable than new construction).
If Historic Preservation Is So Great, How Can We Promote It?
Historic preservation is often met by critics who claim it is too expensive, or too regulatory in nature. I contend that historic “preservation” should not be inferred as freezing a building in time and limiting its uses. The best way to “preserve” a historic building is to ensure that its use be relevant and active - not obsolete and not a museum. Perhaps historic “revitalization” is in fact the mantra that preservationists should adopt.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is the national “face” to preservation in this county. I think that leadership from the Trust could inspire creatively and provide guidance to local governments, so that historic preservation is not thought of as bureaucratic or “taking-away of private property rights.” Guidelines that encourage rather than discourage reinvestment in historic buildings may anger preservation “purists,” but I would rather see utilization to vacancies. This could be as simple as streamlining the development approvals for a rehabilitation project, or reducing proffers.
The existing Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit has been an economic driver in restoring historic homes nationwide, spurring over $25 billion in private investment in 25 years. Perhaps additional incentives could be provided if a developer can roll the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit into a historic renovation project. The current Historic Tax Credits can only be used for income-generating buildings. A bill introduced in 1994, H.R. 5249 (103rd) Historic Homeownership Assistance Act, is designed to work like the existing tax credit to provide a 20% tax credit for the qualified expenditures made in rehabilitating a historic residence - providing tax incentives to individual homeowners. This bill has yet to pass.
Finally, as a combatant to gentrification, policies should promote diverse, economically integrated neighborhoods and policies that promote homeownership. It is vital that renovated historic housing remain affordable. Historic preservation provides an opportunity to provide affordable housing while at the same time being the most sustainable development there is.
Guest Contributor: Liz Russell
Health care is an extremely important component of community development. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the leading community development foundations in the United States, considers health, poverty and community development to be “inseparable.” The reason is fairly obvious–– healthy children do better in school than unhealthy children and healthy adults are earn better incomes than unhealthy adults.
Undocumented immigrants have no access to health insurance. As result, undocumented families struggle to foster healthy communities. This contributes to crime and other community development problems. This also causes strain on hospitals. Under federal law, hospitals must provide care to anyone who seeks care in an Emergency Room regardless of immigration status. This kind of care is classified as indigent care, or charity care. To pay for indigent care, hospitals receive federal funding (taxpayers dollars) or make up for those costs with profits derived from seeing privately insured patients. Regardless, this health care ends up costing every American. However, lawmakers in California and elsewhere are beginning to realize that by offering basic health care to undocumented immigrants, they can save money when those patients do not put off care until it requires an Emergency Room.
Immigration reform has the opportunity to alleviate the strain on health care in America and improve communities where undocumented immigrants live. Under the proposed reforms, The United States Congress will soon take up a bipartisan plan to overhaul immigration in this country. Lost on many Americans is how important immigration reform is for all communities––not just undocumented immigrants.
Consider some the different components of community development that are often unattainable for undocumented immigrants–– health insurance, financing for houses and cars, public welfare programs, banking services, and in-state tuition (in most states). Lack of access to some of the key components of community development has a profound impact on undocumented immigrants and all Americans.
Undocumented immigrants must provide proof of employment and consistent employment. This means that any immigrants seeking to become American citizens will be required to have health care like any other American in the United States. Their employer will provide this, or they may be eligible for federal subsidies to purchase health care. In any case, the expected gains from insuring people and getting them the care they need before they seek the Emergency Room is expected to save a billions of dollars in uncompensated care.
By documenting and insuring undocumented immigrants, we can improve their lives and the lives of all Americans. Healthy immigrants with documentation will have the opportunity to contribute to society and have the opportunity to raise their children in healthy environments.
Guest Contributor: Addie Bryant
Schools, public schools in particular, often play a central role in communities. Many families consider the quality and reputation of schools a major factor in choosing where to live (if they have the means and mobility to make such a choice). Public schools also hold lasting memories and significant historic meaning. This is especially true for communities such as the one that rallied to preserve and reinvent the Jefferson School in Charlottesville, Virginia. The school, which has a much longer history than the extant building, embodies the struggles and accomplishments of Charlottesville’s African American community since the late nineteenth-century. Andrea Douglas, Executive Director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, in an interview with Andrea Copeland of Inside Nonprofits, says that the Jefferson School is “the only school in the city in which you can trace the change of the community in its physical structure.” The changes traced in the Jefferson school’s history include the introduction of educational opportunity for former slaves, school segregation, and the now-infamous destruction of the historic Vinegar Hill neighborhood, the western edge of which abuts the Jefferson School, as part of Charlottesville’s urban renewal program in the 1960s and 1970s.
Rudolph Goffney, alumnus of the Jefferson School and participant in the Jefferson School Oral History Project, describes the importance of preserving the school as a way of honoring an often painful history: “You’re going to need reminders of those things when you don’t have the people around to tell others what happened…if people don’t learn what happened, they’ll never know why or how, or how to prevent it from happening again“ (as quoted in Community Engagement at the Jefferson School). Jefferson School alumni were instrumental in revising the city’s plans to redevelop the school to ensure that the building and its tenants will honor and preserve local African American history and reestablish the cultural heart of the community.
The new Jefferson School City Center, which celebrated its grand opening on January 19, 2013, is now home to a renovated Carver Recreation Center and the new Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, along with the Jefferson Area Board for Aging’s intergenerational programming, Piedmont Virginia Community College’s new culinary program, and several other non-profits and social service organizations. While not the first school building to be adapted for new use in Charlottesville (the McGuffey Arts Center and the Albemarle County Office Building both occupy historic city schools), the Jefferson School City Center represents a unique and collaborative model that will commemorate the African American community’s history while providing a place for citizens to gather and engage in new cultural production.
Other cities around the country have adapted historic school buildings for community use: a former high school in Redmond, Washington is now the Old Redmond Schoolhouse Community Center, which according to the Project for Public Spaces “has provided the catalyst for revitalization of a diverse and economically challenged neighborhood and a focal point for renewed and expanded community development.” Indianapolis, Indiana’s new Martindale Brightwood Community Center, expected to be completed this year, will include renovation of former Hazel Hart Hendricks School 37 to a state-of-the-art community center preserving the original gymnasium and adding a community kitchen, town square area, and other amenities. Cities are also finding creative ways to keep operating schools at the center of communities, re-using other building types such as a movie theater-turned-charter-school in Brooklyn, New York and a former church slated to house the middle school campus of San Francisco’s Children’s Day School.
Keep an eye on what happens at the Jefferson School City Center; the Center’s story embodies the centrality of schools in defining the history and shaping the future of our communities.
Guest Contributor: Julia Triman
What are the “hidden” costs of homelessness and how do we begin to measure them? Homelessness is difficult to quantify for several reasons: (1) the homeless themselves tend to be “hidden”; (2) the root causes of homelessness are complex; and (3) the costs incurred by municipalities as a result of homelessness are often embedded in services spread across myriad agencies. For all of these reasons, it is difficult to effectively address the issue of homelessness. However, many organizations in the City of Charlottesville, Virginia have developed a Community Plan to End Homelessness and have begun to see the reduction of costs to public services and of those classified as chronically homeless.
A recent assessment entitled “The Hidden Costs of Homelessness in Nashville: A Report to the Nashville Metro Homelessness Commission” conducted by students at Vanderbilt University of the chronically homeless in Nashville, TN revealed that service costs were sought for “addiction treatment, advocacy, case management/referrals, child care and education, clothing, communications, counseling, documents, education, emergency care/transport, financial services, food, health care, housing/shelter, incarceration, job training, laundry, legal/courts, mental/behavioral health, pastoral care, personal care items, and transportation.” For Nashville, the average annual cost to provide permanent housing was estimated at $5,907-7,618 per person which was significantly less than the $11,500 of costs related to the temporary housing and care of average and chronically homeless.
The principle of Housing First echoes this reality. By providing permanent housing as the first step in service provision there is a resulting reduction in the provision of existing services. Charlottesville has already witnessed these benefits with regard to a new single room occupancy (SRO) facility managed by Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH). Serving Richmond, Norfolk and Charlottesville, VSH has been providing permanent supportive housing to the homeless in addition to on-site case management, counseling and financial literacy programs, community building and guaranteed tenure. On average, temporary housing in Richmond costs $9,500-13,500 per person. Permanent housing saves the public up to $9,000 per individual served. Of the residents in VSH programs, 96% obtain a stable income through work or entitlement programs and 98% of residents do not return to homelessness.
The Crossings at 4th & Preston opened March 2012 in Charlottesville and is managed by VSH. It is a SRO facility with furnished studio apartments. The facility also contains community spaces, laundry facilities, a fitness room and a computer room. The Crossings is staffed 16 hours a day with an on-call evening manager. There is extensive security, off-street parking, access to public transportation, proximity to downtown and business districts and supportive services to improve health, income and housing. The new construction is also EarthCraft Virginia-certified for resource and energy efficiency.
When we begin to understand the linkages between housing tenure, social services and stability, we begin to better recognize the hidden costs of homelessness. It is only when we see that these “hidden” costs are costs to us, the taxpaying citizenry, that we feel compelled to make the initial investment in the creation of Housing First facilities and programs. Let us hope that the homeless and the “true” costs to our society can find a way to daylight.
Guest Contributor: Laura McGurn
We have long moved past the ideology of homelessness as a choice, and the Reagan Administration’s declaration that “no one is living on the streets.” In fact, the United States in recent years has even gone beyond simply sheltering the homeless population. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has made the Supportive Housing Program its focus on addressing the homelessness problem. The Supportive Housing Program has been designed to “develop supportive housing and services that will allow homeless persons to live as independently as possible.” And to a large extent, this program has been very successful coupled with state and local governments, housing authorities, and nonprofits. The successes of this program shows that we are ready to take the next step in aiding the homeless population, and to me, this means preparing them for homeownership.
A study conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2008 presented the average length of time spent by homeless persons in various types of housing across 26 cities. The results showed that the average stay for single men in permanent supportive housing was 556 days, and 571 days for single women. That creates an average time of about a year and a half that a homeless individual stays in this housing. This compares to some recent data from Virginia Supportive Housing, a permanent supportive housing nonprofit based out of Richmond, Virginia. VSH’s data shows that emergency room visits dropped from 200 prior to program entry, to less than 30 after 10-20 months after entry. Similarly, arrests went from more than 40 prior to entry, to less than 5 after entry. Furthermore, individuals who partake in VSH’s program saw an average income increase by 33%.
It is clear, then, that the permanent supportive housing approach has worked very well. Homeless individuals who participate in the programs no longer spend large quantities of their time in jail or the hospital, and see a significant increase in their incomes. The program also couples their permanent housing solution with skills improvements such as in math, reading and writing, and cooking. Meanwhile, success rates have been high. The Crossroads in Atlanta boasts of a 90% success rate of individuals who do not return to homelessness, and most supportive housing organizations show similar figures.
The next question we must ask is “what’s next?” Although the average stay in supportive housing is only a year and a half, most organizations do not have term limits. Therefore, by allowing individuals to stay permanently, it becomes difficult for permanent supportive housing to address all of the needs of every homeless person in a given city. Continually, those who do choose to move out, obviously move on to another form of housing. If this is the case, why shouldn’t the next logical step to supporting the homeless population be to prepare them for homeownership? There have been a number of successful programs to help low-income groups purchase a home that could easily be modified to address the homeless population.
Homeownership training programs have shown to be an effective way of preparing low-income and minority populations for homeownership, while increasing their access to better neighborhoods. Though these programs have neglected to fully prepare low-income groups for the costs of repairs and general upkeep of owning a home, the fact is that more low-income people are able to become homeowners as a result of these programs. The programs, then, could easily accommodate previously homeless individuals looking to move beyond rental housing. Despite being a very low-income group, even after significant increases in their income after moving into permanent supportive housing, homeownership training programs could start the process for homeless individuals to prepare themselves for homeownership. To begin this process, these programs should be incorporated into all permanent supportive housing programs, and be made accessible to any homeless individual who dreams of owning a home for the first time, or becoming a homeowner again.
Another option is adjusting the idea of social ownership to incorporate the homeless. Michael Stone defines social ownership as: “it is not owned and operated for profit, it cannot be sold for speculative gain; and it provides security of tenure for residents.” Social ownership therefore removes the asset accumulation side of homeownership, and focuses on security of tenure. Realistically, the goal for transitioning form homeless to homeowner is security of tenure. This is provided by permanent supportive housing, but is only available to a limited number of individuals. If the new goal is to then move homeless individuals into a social ownership situation, where they have the social benefits of homeownership, but not the financial aspects, that goal will have been achieved. Regardless of whether this social ownership comes in the form of ownership by a public agency, ownership by a nonprofit, or some sort of mutual housing association, it will provide us with this next step.
Finally, our mentality towards homelessness has to change. We may no longer see homelessness as nonexistent, or as a group of individuals who choose to live their life that way, but few Americans are able to see a path from homeless to homeownership. We must recognize that homelessness is a serious issue in this country, and it is not going away until we devote equally serious financial and social support to the problem. If for no other reason, we should be motivated to not pour taxpayer dollars into hospital trips and jail cell stays, but the moral obligation must be realized as well. These are our fellow humans and fellow citizens who need and want a change, and we have the resources to provide it.
Guest Contributor: Matt Morgan
Growing up in Virginia Beach, VA instilled a sense of pessimism in me about public transportation. Virginia Beach is the largest city in the state, yet the only form of public transportation available to citizens is a rather substandard bus system that is unreliable, questionable in terms of security, and used only by citizens that have no other options for transporting themselves from place to place. Even then, some prefer to simply walk or bike instead of riding the public busses. Furthermore, the bickering of local politicians and citizens in regard to the viability of alternative forms of public transportation in a suburban city led me to believe that any efforts directed at implementing such options would be hopeless. However, in the past two years I have witnessed an awesome change take place in the city of Norfolk, which borders Virginia Beach. I now wholeheartedly believe that a suburban city such as my hometown can, in fact, construct and sustain a form of mass transit other than busses or trollies.
Background: Virginia Beach is part of a larger regional network of cities and counties, referred to as Hampton Roads by locals and known as the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC MSA according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of 2010, the population of the MSA was 1.672 million, with approximately 681,000 residents concentrated in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Having seven counties and eight independent cities has always rendered local leaders nearly helpless when it comes to an integrated approach to implementing viable mass transit options. This is primarily due to competing interests and dissenting opinions amongst localities. I would argue that no other region in the country has a situation quite as unique as Hampton Roads in this regard. Furthermore, the fact that the Chesapeake Bay separates localities on the southside (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk) from those on the peninsula only makes matters worse.
The Tide: But it appears that a solution has been found: The Tide light rail system. The Tide is a 7.4 mile light rail line in the city of Norfolk that opened on August 19, 2011. The Tide is sponsored by Hampton Roads Transit and is currently the only light rail system in Virginia. The Tide currently has 11 stops extending from the western terminus located near Eastern Virginia Medical School to the eastern terminus at Newtown Road. Six months after The Tide opened to the public, daily ridership totals averaged 4,650 trips daily, exceeding the forecasted 2,900 trips predicted by experts. The CEO of HRT at the time, Philip Shucet, predicted that The Tide will hit its 20-year projection of 7,200 daily rides within three years. It is safe to say that The Tide has been nothing but a total success so far.
One-way ridership fares are determined by age:
1-Day Pass option:
5-Day GoPass option:
7-Day GoPass option:
30-Day GoPass option:
As you can see, a plethora of options exist for riders that adjust fees after taking important ridership attributes into account. This is a considerate and thoughtful way to accommodate a range of social demographics, which in turn increases the likelihood of a diverse ridership pool. Furthermore, tickets and passes can be purchased at numerous locations throughout the city such as retail outlets, public busses, mail order, and more. This makes it even easier for a sizeable portion of local residents to ride The Tide.
Riding The Tide: Riders identify the station where they would like to board The Tide. Tickets and GoPasses can be purchased at vending machines located at every station. Riders then board The Tide, show their tickets to fare inspectors (if requested), and proceed along their route.
On weekdays, The Tide operates from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.; they system operates until midnight on Fridays. Trains dock at stations at fluctuating intervals ranging from every 10 minutes to 30 minutes depending on the hour. On Saturdays, The Tide operates from 6:00 a.m. until midnight. Sundays have a more limited operation schedule from 10:55 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. In case riders are confused about the operating schedule, HRT provides a comprehensive listing of all arrival times for each station on their website.
It should be noted that HRT took into account the fact that some riders may be commuting by vehicle from distant neighborhoods and adjacent cities to the light rail stations, and then continuing their trip into Norfolk aboard The Tide. Exactly 1,237 parking spots are located at five of the 11 stations, making up what HRT refers to as “Park and Ride” lots. This is intelligent transportation design, because it accommodates individuals who may not live in close proximity to a light rail station, yet also desire to use The Tide to get into Norfolk. This is another example of HRT going the extra mile to ensure that The Tide features many conveniences for its riders. If the light rail were to be extended into Virginia Beach, placing Park and Ride lots at some of the new stations would surely entice individuals who would not otherwise use The Tide to at least test it out and see if this transit option suits their needs.
What happens next?
During the November 2012 elections, citizens in Virginia Beach voted on a referendum that asked “Should the Virginia Beach City Council adopt an ordinance approving the use of all reasonable efforts to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach?” Approximately 62% of voters approved the referendum, signaling majority public support for such a project.
In order for The Tide to be expanded, however, more change needs to happen. For starters, citizens and local leaders opposed to forms of mass transit need to acknowledge that past transportation planning in South Hampton Roads has been inadequate. Road conditions along I-64 and I-264 are poor and constantly deteriorating. Funding for road maintenance has been insufficient and repairs occur at a sluggish rate. This is not necessarily the fault of HRT, because funding is usually dictated by state and federal agencies, but this still means that projects are not completed in a timely manner. Therefore, it is time for a revolution in terms of thought and practice regarding the availability of alternative forms of mass transit. Light rail, as proven by the success of The Tide, is the most viable option for this sprawling suburban region. It is incorrect to argue that the public would not use a light rail system if it were available, plain and simple. Politicians need to push Richmond to allocate funding for the expansion of this rail system. The bad news is that a landmark transportation bill which just passed the general assembly allocated $200 million in tax dollars to Hampton Roads- but it also stipulated that this money can only be used on fixing the roadways.
I also argue that citizens need to abandon the idea that Hampton Roads cities are autonomous localities with distinct cultural and social differences, and that implementing a form of mass transit linking the cities would be detrimental to their welfare. It is time for the cities of Hampton Roads to consolidate their transportation planning efforts into one united front. The evidence provided by the success of the Tide makes it is increasingly difficult to argue that Hampton Roads would not benefit from such a move. An expansion of The Tide would be an extremely beneficial move for Virginia Beach, and on a larger scale, Hampton Roads.
 U.S. Census Bureau. “Table 22. Metropolitan Statistical Areas With More Than 750,000 Persons in
2010—Population by Age: 2010.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2010. http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0022.pdf.
 Dave Forster. “Hampton Roads can’t use regional tax for mass transit.” Hampton Roads.com, February 26, 2013. http://www.gohrt.com/hampton-roads-cant-use-regional-tax-for-mass-transit/.