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An expansive new database could change the way Americans think about where we can afford to live.

Housing policymakers have long lamented the trend of home-buyers who "drive to qualify." If they can't find anything affordable in the city, house hunters wander farther and father out in search of a mortgage or a rent payment that matches their pocketbook. But of course, there's a serious flaw in this thinking: The farther you go in search of cheaper housing, the more expensive your transportation costs become.

Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology calls this "the hidden cost of housing location," and CNT has for several years been trying to illustrate the tradeoff for homeowners and government officials who may not realize gallons of gas add up almost as fast as mortgage payments do. The Chicago-based organization maintains a massive, geo-coded database of location-specific information on average housing costs, driving rates, transportation costs, and transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. The online, interactive index is both highly useful in allowing comparisons of typical household costs in different locations and highly revealing as it illuminates the benefits of close-in, walkable neighborhoods in bringing those costs down

Today, CNT expanded the database to nearly 900 metropolitan and “micropolitan” areas, covering 89 percent of the American population. The aggregate data show that, when median regional household income is compared to average housing and transportation costs put together, only 28 percent of America's communities are truly affordable for the typical family. That's a dramatically different picture from the one we get by looking at housing costs alone. By the traditional definition of affordability (where housing eats up less than 30 percent of household income), 76 percent of communities appear to meet the mark.

Analyzing all this data in aggregate, CNT found that, between 2000 and 2009, U.S. transportation and housing costs increased at nearly twice the rate of incomes. But the good news, the organization reports, is that people living in “location efficient” neighborhoods—those with good access to transit, jobs, and amenities—experienced only half the increase in transportation costs ($1,400/year) of those living in car-dependent places ($3,900/year). This means more expensive housing may actually be the more affordable option, if that housing exists in the right place.

Suddenly New York City, with its notoriously high housing costs, looks a little more affordable with the nation's lowest average annual transportation costs for a big metro region. Households around seemingly more affordable Birmingham, on the other hand, spend on average nearly $5,000 a year more than those in the New York region do just to get around.

"To put it simply, if you have to drive 15,000 miles a year to get to a job and services, and the price of gas doubles like it did between December 2008 and May of 2011, that adds up to a whole additional mortgage payment for a household every year," says Harriet Tregoning, the director of the District of Columbia's Office of Planning, who has used the index for local planning. "That’s a significant threat to neighborhood stability and we think one of the explanations for why we’ve seen such a variable foreclosure rate across our region."

CNT's index reveals, for example, that high transportation costs are highly correlated with foreclosure rates. This isn't surprising given that transportation typically represents a family's second biggest expense.

On one location on the south side of Rapid City, South Dakota, for instance, the index shows that an average home costs 26 percent of median income. But, given average driving rates for the location, the costs of housing and transportation considered together balloon to 56 percent of median income. The Index also shows that the average household in the vicinity generates more than 8.6 tons per year of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Average emissions per household in the most accessible neighborhoods on CNT’s map are between 5.1 and 6.5 tons per year.

Around the city of Chicago, the index suggests that real affordability actually looks like the map on the right, where the yellow areas represent combined housing and transportation costs below 45 percent of typical household income. Through this lens, the affordable suburbs to the city’s west (portrayed on the left using the old definition of affordability) look much less so:

For a policy analyst, the beefed-up Index is extremely useful and versatile, with additional data on auto ownership and driving rates per household, transit ridership, greenhouse gas emissions per acre, residential density, block size and homeownership and rental rates. Lawmakers seeking to provide relief to strapped households – as well as to consider measures to address carbon emissions – could look at all of this and see that, in many locations, transportation remedies are needed as much as, if not more than, housing-cost remedies.

The tool has also become so useful that CNT is now working to develop a version of it for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We have heard it from the finance side, from the homebuyer side, from the policy-making side as well, folks saying, ‘We need this to be federally available,’” says Mariia Zimmerman, deputy director of HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities. “It’s great to have a nongovernmental entity making this information available. But it means something different when it’s the federal government that’s done a pretty strenuous evaluation and peer-review process and made that information available for everyone.”

At the federal level, this also means that CNT’s index could be on its way to nationally redefining the very meaning of “affordability.” The concept of “location efficiency,” for instance, could lead government officials to place a greater emphasis on preserving affordable housing in low-cost transportation communities. And maybe one day your bank – and its federal backers – will offer location-efficient mortgages. Perhaps you’d qualify for a bigger loan in a downtown neighborhood with employment nodes and transit stops (or, for that matter, a smaller loan in the exurbs).

Top image: SVLuma / Shutterstock.com

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