Cheaper Rents Mean Higher Commute Costs

Commute cost homeownersThe Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a nonprofit organization promoting more livable and sustainable urban communities, announced this week the results of its expanded Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, which looks at the cost of living in different metropolitan area neighborhoods based on combined housing and transportation costs as well as accompanying urban design. The Index examines 337 metro areas across the country, some 161,000 neighborhoods representing about 80 percent of the U.S. population.

When middle class flight to the suburbs was at its apex in the 1970s, the poorest members of most urban populations lived in the city center. Although the lost tax dollars meant that cities like New York and Detroit disintegrated into graffiti-strewn, crime-ridden wastelands, at least the subways and buses still made it easy for those without cars to get around.

Now, however, as America's city centers have been reborn as destinations for more affluent citizens seeking highrise condos and pedestrian-friendly environments, people earning less are facing a double-sized expense: the massive transportation costs of living on the outskirts."The price tag on a house is often the determining factor for families when they choose where to live," reads the CNT's H+T Affordability Index executive summary. "People often drive far from metro centers in search of affordable rents and mortgages and opt to settle in communities with lower housing costs. This 'drive 'til you qualify' trend has encouraged outward sprawl around our nation's cities as Americans pursue housing that fits their budget.

"But the true cost of a house is not reflected in its price tag alone. Buyers and policy-makers often do not consider the transportation costs associated with a home's location. For most families, transportation is the second biggest household expense and, although it is directly impacted by where we live, it does not factor into current measures of housing 'affordability'."

The CNT defines affordability as a household's combined housing and transportation costs being no more than 45% of income. In this scenario, the index found that 48,000 communities considered affordable by the conventional housing-only measure were, in fact, not affordable to residents. Overall, in the more than 300 metro regions studied, combined housing and transportation costs are lower in central cities and more compact suburbs that have mixed residential and commercial neighborhoods, a wide range of transportation options, and pedestrian-friendly streets.

For example, the Index cites a home in the Washington, DC suburb of Loudoun County, Virginia taking an average of 28.7 percent of household income, with transportation raising that to 55.9 percent. Montgomery County, Maryland, also a DC suburb, shows an average 26.6 housing costs but rises to 45.9 percent with transportation costs added in.

As always, crunching numbers can produce varying results based on the factors involved-or not involved. For example, one might find cheaper combined housing plus transportation costs renting an inner-city apartment and walking or bicycling to work. But when the advantages of owning a home and building equity are figured in, buying a house or condo further from city center might still be a more sound overall financial choice. What's more, many cities have substantially expanded their mass-transit links to the suburbs.

In my hometown of Portland, for example, the MAX light rail line is focused on connecting the city center to suburbs like Gresham and Beaverton, and it has received more funding in the last 30 years than Portland's central-city streetcar lines. But it's still true that the more sprawled out a city is, the harder it becomes for even those mass transit lines to be comprehensive enough to move the majority of commuters.

Still, the CNT study ultimately is further reinforcement of the growing consensus that urban planning must better accommodate what's called the "20 minute living": the idea that open spaces (planned and natural), grocery stores, workplaces, libraries, events, public and private schools all exist within a concentrated area. As one figures the affordability of a place to live, not just housing and transportation but the entire matrix of household expenses, this may be the ultimate rule to live by. If you're being asked to drive an hour each way to work, you're not just facing bigger gas bills, but a deficit of time, family and community.
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