Affordable Housing, heat-mapped

Contrary to popular belief, transportation methods have less to do with household incomes and more to do with the location of one’s neighborhood, says Aarian Marshall, a contributing writer for The Atlantic’s sister-publication CityLab.

While it makes a lot of sense that transportation needs and costs are dependent on location, transportation seems to often be left out of conversations surrounding affordable housing. Realistically, what good is low rent when the cost of commuting takes up a huge chunk of renters’ income?

Affordable housing costs less than 30% of a households income, as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to new work from Shima Hamidi, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Reid Ewing, a professor at and the director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah’s College of Architecture and Planning, many expensive areas of the country can have transportation costs that are above 15% of households incomes, pushing affordable rent plus transportation to almost half of what someone makes.

The most expensive city is not notoriously overpriced New York, or even San Francisco—it’s the metro area composed of Warren, Troy, and Farmington Hills, Michigan, where 99.3 percent of households in public-housing properties spend more than 15 percent of their incomes on transportation. Other crazy-expensive transportation cities include Phoenix (where 97.4 percent of households in affordable housing spend more than 15 percent of their income), Buffalo (83.5 percent), Pittsburgh (82.2 percent), and Dallas (71.7 percent). No surprise here: These are places mostly characterized by sprawl, where it’s virtually impossible to get around without a car.

The conclusion is pretty simple, says Hamidi: HUD needs “a policy that supports housing subsidies that are higher in inaccessible areas to account for higher transportation costs.” And as she and her colleague Ewing write in their paper, HUD is better off providing affordable housing in “more compact, walkable and transit-served” places than “auto-dependent areas” characterized by sprawl.

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