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Walkable Cities Are More Affordable Than You Think – We Need More of Them

People living in walkable cities may have high housing costs, but they also tend to have low transportation costs and better access to jobs, according to a new study from Smart Growth America [PDF].

The most walkable metro areas have better job access and lower transportation costs, helping cancel out the effects of high housing costs. Graph: Smart Growth America

The most walkable metro areas have better job access and lower transportation costs, lightening the burden of high housing costs. Table: Smart Growth America

SGA ranked the 30 largest American regions according to the share of rental housing, office space, and retail located in areas with high Walk Scores. Then, using data from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, each region was also assigned a “social equity index” score based on housing and transportation costs for moderate-income households, as well as the number of jobs residents can access.

SGA found a significant link between walkability and its equity index, even though housing costs tend to be higher in walkable places.

In the areas with the highest walkable urbanism score, housing costs per square foot are indeed quite a bit higher than in car-oriented places — 93 percent higher, according to SGA. But moderate-income households in those six regions also have lower transportation costs — about 19 percent of their income, on average, compared to 28 percent in the least walkable places. Residents of compact places likely pay for less square footage than residents of spread-out places.

All told, SGA found that moderate-income households in the six most walkable regions spend about the same share of their income on housing and transportation combined as moderate-income households across all 30 metros — about 42 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

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High Transportation Costs Make a Lot of HUD Housing Unaffordable

"Affordable" housing units with excessively high transportation costs shown in red, and affordable transportation costs in yellow in the Atlanta area (left) and Detroit area (right). Map: University of Texas

Maps of Atlanta (left) and Detroit (right) show HUD rental units with high transportation costs in red and those with affordable transportation costs in yellow. Maps: University of Texas

Rental assistance from HUD isn’t enough to make the cost of living affordable when the subsidies go toward housing in car-dependent areas, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Utah. The study evaluated transportation costs for more than 18,000 households that receive HUD rental subsidies, estimating that nearly half of recipients have to spend more than 15 percent of their household budgets on transportation.

HUD generally considers housing to be “affordable” if it consumes less than 30 percent of a family’s income. But that calculation doesn’t factor in the transportation costs that come along with different housing locations. A family that lives in a walkable neighborhood with good transit options will be less burdened with transportation costs — car payments, insurance, gas — than a family with the same income living in an area where they have to drive for every trip.

A broader picture of affordability comes from the “H+T index” popularized by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which holds that if housing accounts for 30 percent of a household’s budget, transportation should not account for more than 15 percent to keep total costs affordable.

In the new study, researchers developed a model to determine how much households receiving HUD rental assistance have to spend on transportation in several cities. They found a great deal of variation across metro areas. In San Antonio, for example, only 13.5 percent of the housing units were in locations where transportation costs would consume less than 15 percent of household income, while in Los Angeles the figure was 97 percent.

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Which Cities Are Adding Walkable Housing the Fastest?

Since 1970, most American metros have seen their share or walkable urban housing decline, according to this analysis by data guru Kasey Klimes.

Since 1970, most American metros have seen walkable housing decline as a share of total housing. Chart: Kasey Klimes

As more Americans look for walkable places to live, cities are struggling to deliver, and a lot of neighborhoods are becoming less affordable. A new analysis by Kasey Klimes of Copenhagen’s Gehl Studio illustrates how major metro areas have let their supply of walkable housing shrink over the years, contributing to today’s housing crunch.

In this chart, Klimes shows how much walkable neighborhoods, which he defines as places with 10 or more housing units per acre, have grown or declined as a share of total housing in the nation’s 51 largest regions, from 1970 through 2010.

In most places, Klimes writes, the trend since 1970 has left cities in bad shape to handle the increasing demand for walkable neighborhoods:

The percentage of housing in walkable neighborhoods has dropped from 19.4% to 12% since 1970. Overall, though the number of housing units in America has outpaced population at a ratio of 3:2 since 1970, the number of housing units in walkable neighborhoods has trailed behind population growth at a ratio of 3:1. Now that market preference has returned to dense housing, this mismatch has left us far behind in adequate supply.

The silver lining is an uptick in decade to decade construction of dense housing. The net gain of housing in walkable neighborhoods as a fraction of total net housing gain by decade has increased from just 0.3% in the 1970’s to 10.7% in the 2000’s.

Despite some recent progress, the mismatch between low supply and high demand is contributing to rising housing prices and burdening people with rents they can’t afford in many cities and neighborhoods. Zoning that outlaws walkable development and the disproportionate political power of development-averse property owners are two factors that have hindered housing development where it is most in demand.

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Seattle Policy Honchos Look to Parking Reform to Make Housing Affordable

They look like houses, but they're not for people -- just cars. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/smart_growth/3881768618/in/set-72157624500360362/##Brett VA/flickr##

They look like houses, but people can’t live in them. Photo: Brett VA/Flickr

Buried under headlines about Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s plans to battle “economic apartheid” are little-noticed reforms that would reduce or do away with parking quotas that inflate the cost of housing.

Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee released its recommendations yesterday. Noting that about “65 percent of Seattle’s land — not just its residential land but all its land — is zoned single family, severely constraining how much the City can increase housing supply,” the report calls for raising height limits in six percent of that area. The rest of the city currently zoned for single family would get “small tweaks” like allowances for mother-in-law units and duplexes to increase the housing supply within existing height limits.

Seeking to make more productive use of available land — even the land zoned for lower densities — HALA also recommends a number of reforms to parking mandates that “act as density limits” and “inflate the average size and price of housing units.”

Here are some of the major changes to off-street and on-street parking policy in the report:

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Are There Any Affordable Cities Left in America?

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column are especially expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

Are Washington, San Francisco, and New York the most affordable American cities? A new report from the New York-based Citizen’s Budget Commission [PDF], which made the rounds at the Washington Post and CityLab, argues that if you consider the combined costs of housing and transportation, the answer is yes.

But a closer look at the data casts some doubt on that conclusion. Between the high cost of transportation in sprawling regions and the high demand for housing in compact cities with good transit, very few places in America are looking genuinely affordable these days.

The CBC report uses a better measure of affordability than housing costs alone. Transportation is the second biggest household expense for the average American family, and looking at what people spend on housing plus transportation (H+T) can upend common assumptions about which places are affordable and which are not. Regions with cheap housing but few alternatives to car commuting don’t end up scoring so well.

There are some problems with the CBC’s methodology, however. While abundant transit is absolutely essential to keeping household transportation costs down, and it provides a lifeline to low-income residents of major coastal cities, the report still tends to exaggerate overall affordability in these areas.

According to the report, for example, New York City ranks third in affordability among 22 large cities. A “typical household” in New York City, the CBC finds, spends 32 percent of its income on housing and transportation combined. Part of the reason New York comes out looking good, though, is that CBC used a regional measure of income but looked at typical rents only in the city itself. Because the region’s median income is higher than the median income in the city ($62,063 vs. $51,865, respectively, according to 2008-2012 Census data), NYC appears more affordable than it really is.

Another issue, flagged by Michael Lewyn at his CNU blog, is that by looking at average rents, which in some cities include many rent-stabilized units, the calculation doesn’t necessarily capture what someone searching for shelter is likely to pay. If you’re trying to find an apartment in New York now, getting a place for the average rent would probably be extremely difficult.

What really stands out in the CBC report isn’t that New York, San Francisco, and DC are affordable — it’s that car-dependent areas that may have cheap housing turn out to be so expensive once you factor in transportation.

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Talking Headways Podcast: A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings In the Metro

At around 800 people per square mile, places go from voting red to voting blue. Image: ##http://davetroy.com/posts/the-real-republican-adversary-population-density##Dave  Troy##

At around 800 people per square mile, places go from voting red to voting blue. Image: Dave Troy

The metro is coming to Loudon County, Virginia. Eventually.

The Silver Line expansion that opens this summer will only go as far as Reston, but by 2018 it’ll be in Loudon, one of the nation’s fastest-growing — and wealthiest — counties.

As the county’s population continues to grow — especially among communities of color — will its density hit 800 people per square mile, which is the threshold at which places magically turn from Republican to Democrat? And if it does, will it turn Virginia from purple to blue? And with such an important swing state shifting solidly to one camp, does that change the national political balance? And what is it with the number 800 anyway?

We try to figure it all out on this week’s Talking Headways. Plus, Stephen Miller, my colleague from Streetsblog New York, joins us to talk about what is — and what isn’tmoving forward as part of the city’s Vision Zero plan.

And: Detroit is tearing down more than 20 percent of its housing stock to reduce blight and still splurges on roads. Is that the way to revitalize a city? The comments section awaits you.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Les Rues Are Made for Walking

Last week, Smart Growth America brought us the bad news: More than 47,000 people died while walking between 2003 and 2012. Most victims are killed on high-speed arterial roads. A disproportionate number are elderly or racial minorities.

Paris showed us a powerful solution: The city is lowering its default speed limit to 30 kilometers per hour, or about 18 mph. Speed limits are already set at that level on about a third of the city’s streets. That’s good policy, and one cities around the world should be following.

Meanwhile, the New York Times informed us that as the housing market recovers, the vast majority of new construction is made up of multi-family housing — a major shift from the over-production of single-family homes that lasted for decades.

In this episode, Jeff and I process all of that and more. Find holes in our analysis in the comments. And don’t miss an episode: Subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher or by signing up for our RSS feed.

And lastly, our spring pledge drive ends on Sunday and we haven’t yet hit our goal of reaching 400 donors. Donate today! Your support makes this podcast happen!

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Our Cities Can’t Afford So Many Rooftop Spas

Rooftop pool with a view of the Washington Monument? All this could be yours if you have insane amounts of disposable income. And I do mean "disposable." Photo: ##http://www.rentalsgonewild.com/propertydetail/183/i-street-nw-washington-dc-20037##Rentals Gone Wild##

Rooftop pool with a view of the Washington Monument? All this could be yours if you have insane amounts of disposable income. And I do mean “disposable.” Photo: Rentals Gone Wild

First, let me be clear: Tomorrow is April Fools, not today. This is real.

There are luxury apartment buildings in Washington, DC, trying to lure renters with communal puppies.

That sounds like the makings of a tiny tombstone engraved with “Tragedy of the Commons,” if you ask me. Who’s going to take responsibility for a dog that lives in the hallway?

In any case, the shared dog is just one of many tricks and teases DC developers are using to entice renters, according to Jonathan O’Connell of the Washington Post.

“When the boom started a few years ago, a nicely finished kitchen or a landscaped courtyard made a project stand out,” O’Connell writes. “Now those are considered baseline essentials if a building is going to compete.”

The new must-have amenities include rooftop pools, pet salons, soundproof music “practice jam-rooms,” 24-hour resident concierge services, dry-cleaning valet, a calendar full of activities for residents, customized cupcakes and a signature cocktail at a nearby bar. Oh yes, and “a six-month-old miniature English bulldog named Emmy will take up residence in the sleek new lobby of 2M, one of dozens of apartment buildings being completed in the region this year.”

This is in a city where the average rent for a two-bedroom is over $2,000.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Knight Rider Rides Again

It was a dark and stormy day in San Francisco and Jeff Wood stayed dry in Woonerf studios, recording the Talking Headways podcast with co-host Tanya Snyder, who was bitter that days after the spring equinox, Washington, DC, was getting hit with another snowstorm.

But more importantly — what does the future hold after a tumultuous news cycle for New York’s Citi Bike? What can Chicago (and, oh, every other American city) do to create more affordable housing in the neighborhoods everyone wants to live in? And is the self-driving car seriously going to become a reality by the end of this decade? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Jeff and Tanya take on all that and more. Or really, pretty much just that.

Enjoy our sweet 16th episode of the Talking Headways podcast, subscribe on iTunes, follow the RSS feed, and talk at us in the comments.

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HUD and U.S. DOT Embrace Housing + Transportation Metric for Affordability

philly_housing

Looking only at housing costs (top map), much more far-flung parts of the Philadelphia region look affordable (the yellow areas) than if you look at housing and transportation costs together (bottom map). Maps: CNT

A few years ago, the Center for Neighborhood Technology gave a wonderful gift to urbanists and planners: the Housing + Transportation Index. This simple calculation clarified and popularized a key concept: that transportation costs must be taken into account in any measurement of “affordability.”

Without that, potential homebuyers and renters make the mistake of “saving” money by buying a home far outside the city, only to see those savings vanish when they end up driving multiple cars hundreds of miles per week, racking up fuel and maintenance expenses. The H+T index is a simple tool for making better decisions — for families, for planners, and for the federal government.

Today, U.S. DOT and HUD announced that they’re launching a new version of H+T. They’re calling it the Location Affordability Index, and CNT helped develop it. LAI differs from H+T in some key ways (here’s an infographic detailing those differences) but at its root, it gets at the same important question: Where is the best place to live without breaking the bank?

CNT answers that question by showing the huge variations between two maps: one that shows places where the median household pays 30 percent or more of their income on housing, and one that shows places where those households pay 45 percent or more of their income on housing and transportation combined.

The maps show how intimately linked transportation and housing are when determining cost of living, as HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told reporters today. “For any housing community to succeed, its residents need to be able to get to work, its young people need to be able to get to school, and its families need to be able to access critical resources and services they need,” Donovan said.

philly_ht

Areas farther from the city center no longer appear affordable when transportation costs are factored in.

Donovan noted that for most families, transportation is their second-highest monthly expense, after housing, but said transportation costs aren’t always so easily tabulated. You don’t get one transportation bill in the mail, the way you get your mortgage or rent bill. Transportation costs are paid in dribs and drabs — a tank of gas here, a bus fare there, a parking ticket, a taxi ride, an oil change. The LAI index helps quantify how those costs add up, and see if the transportation requirements of a particular geographic area render it unaffordable.

“It can sometimes be tricky to weigh the pros and cons of all of these options,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Does it make more sense to live in a community where you have to drive to work every day? Or might it be a better bargain to live where you can walk, bike or ride public transportation? That’s where the Location Affordability Portal comes in.”

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