The Persistent Racial Disparities of Motor Vehicle Pollution

Black and brown neighborhoods are exposed to pollution from big roads at elevated rates, with serious negative consequences for public health. Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr
Black and brown neighborhoods are exposed to pollution from big roads at elevated rates, with serious negative consequences for public health. Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr

The environmental racism that’s part of our transportation system doesn’t announce itself out loud. It doesn’t march down the street carrying tiki torches.

But if you look at the outcomes of public policy over the years, the result has been systemic disadvantages for predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, be it in the form of higher pedestrian fatality rates or worse access to jobs.

Air quality expert Tim Kovach recently came across new research showing how racial and class disparities continue to linger in exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks.

Racial discrimination in housing and transportation policy going back generations led to elevated rates of vehicle pollution-related health problems in communities of color, which tend to be closer to big roads and highways. While recent government efforts to clean up tailpipe emissions have lowered air pollution across the board, racial disparities persist in exposure to fine particles from motor vehicles, Kovach reports:

In a study published last month in Environmental Health Perspectives, three researchers from the Universities of Minnesota and Washington examined disparities in exposure to transportation-related air pollution (TRAP) by race and socioeconomic status from 2000 to 2010.

As the authors note, racial minorities and low-income households are significantly more likely to live near major roads, which exposes them to nearly three times the level of TRAP. While efforts to clean up vehicles helped reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels by 37% from 2000-2010 in the US, we do not know how this affected disparities in exposure.

In order to explore this question, the authors analyzed the relationship between TRAP exposure and demographic data at the Census block level in 2000 and 2010.

In 2000, the block groups with the highest share of nonwhite residents had NO2 concentrations that were 13.2 parts per billion (ppb) higher than the block groups with the lowest nonwhite share. By 2010, this difference had fallen to 8.9 ppb, suggesting that the greatest reductions occurred in those communities with the highest level of exposure.

But the absolute reduction disappeared when the authors considered relative changes. In 2000, the block groups with the greatest share of nonwhite residents had 2.5 times higher levels of NO2 than the whitest block groups; by 2010, this disparity had actually increased to 2.7-fold.

The authors concluded that “eliminating disparities may require additional policies and interventions that target the underlying causes of environmental injustice.” This is not how we typically approach environmental issues, particularly air pollution.

With Trump in the White House, federal action to address these disparities isn’t in the cards any time soon. But motivated state, regional, and local agencies should be taking action to eliminate them.

More recommended reading today: ATLUrbanist says a new development in central Atlanta scales down the parking but still has too much. And Modern Cities looks at Miami’s Brickell City Centre as a more walkable, urban model for malls.

  • Step 1: Bury and/or remove asthmaways (highways), especially in urban cores.

    Step 2: Incentivize mass transit.

    Step 3: Recognize that TNCs, AVs, and the Hyperloop won’t solve these problems; increasing EV use nowhere near enough either!

  • reasonableexplanation

    Why would increasing EV use not be enough? Presumably when the vast majority of cars are electric, the only local emissions from vehicles will be brake and tire dust.

    Hell, just the improvements in ICEs over the last few decades have made a huge difference; stand near the exhaust of a car made in the last 10 years and compare the smell to one made in the 90’s and the difference is night and day.

  • Joe R.

    Unless it’s an SUV or anything diesel. That said, enough junk comes out of the exhaust of even newer cars to make me physically ill. Yes, they’re cleaner, but I’ll be happy when the majority of vehicles are electric.

    EVs will also help considerably with brake dust, given that they’ll be using the motor to slow down most of the time, instead of the brakes.

  • reasonableexplanation

    No question diesel is naaaasty. Hence the hope for EVs to be the majority of vehicles sooner than later. We’ll get there, don’t worry.

    The brake dust thing I’m not 100% sure on; on the one hand, yes regen braking is a thing, but the last bit of braking (like stopping for a light in a city) is done on the regular pads. Plus, given that EVs are much heavier than comparable ICE cars, there’s more demand on the braking system overall. Take a look at the brake rotors on a tesla: they’re massive.

  • Carl S

    Even though this talks about disadvantaged people, I see those with >$75000 income and a college or graduate degree have the highest NO2 concentration. Maybe that is because they choose to live in areas like the more expensive parts of Manhattan that have high pollution due to the concentration of cars.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Kinetic energy is quadratic in velocity, so the last bit of braking (converting kinetic energy to heat) involves very little energy. Braking from 5 to zero is only 1% as much braking as from 50 to zero.

  • TakeFive

    The researchers found that car commuters in low-income neighborhoods in San Diego have about 30 times greater job accessibility than those who take public transit.

    …according to the study’s lead author, Marlon Boarnet, a professor of public policy and chair of the department of urban planning and spatial analysis at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

    I think having always lived west of the Mississippi I have a different view. I see it as more of a cost-of-living choice than discrimination by intent. In any case, I’d rather pick my battles and for me it would be accessible and affordable health care.

  • Jason

    …who’s making $75k a year and owning a car in Manhattan?

  • What I mean is that increasing EV use won’t necessarily decrease non-EV use, unless we replace non-EVs with EVs (including trucks).

    This ameliorates – but does not eliminate – the pollution problem, nor will it address the mobility problem or the congestion problem; these can’t be solved through cleaner cars alone. You need fewer cars period (and especially fewer urban highways).

    (For the record, I’m a proponent of EVs; what I’m not a fan is the powers-that-be using these – and AVs – to distract from the problem of crumbling and/or insuffient transit infrastructure.)

  • Not everyone has such freedom of choice; I’d imagine that many individuals live in expensive cities by virtue of employment (or prohibitive moving costs), or some other combination.

    As for affordable health care; I agree. (I’m a proponent of single-payer and standardized health pricing.) That makes some infrastructural issues more significant, especially in urban areas where highways – or asthmaways as I now call them – impose significant costs.

    As an example, the Cross-Bronx *alone* is projected to cost NY over $1.7 *billion* over the next 10 years in wasted time, gas, and pollution:

    Now imagine adding the costs imposed by the rest of NYC’s highways, then add the costs imposed by all other urban highways. (And this isn’t even counting congested local streets!)

  • reasonableexplanation

    Why wouldn’t increasing EV use decrease non-EV use? That’s kind of the whole point.

  • Carl S

    I didn’t say they owned a car. I’m saying some of those making more than $75000 (it doesn’t specify a cap on the upper end of that range) are choosing to live in the more polluted areas like Greenwich Village, Gramercy and SoHo and that must be why they have the highest concentration of NO2.

  • Joe R.

    Under single payer with health care costs paid via taxes there would be a huge incentive to bring down health care costs. Getting people out of automobiles is a great way to do that. Having government run research facilities, drug manufacturing, and hospitals is another. Those can deliver health care at the actual cost, with no profits going to shareholders or CEOs. Moreover, there would be heavy incentive to rely on low-cost solutions like lifestyle changes instead of expensive drugs or surgical procedures.

    Under our present system no such incentive exists. In fact, there’s a perverse incentive to suck as much money from people as possible via insurance premiums, hospital bills, prescription drugs, and so forth. I’ve often said there’s probably a cure for cancer sitting in a vault someplace but it’ll never see the light of day so long as we have a profit-driven health care system. Cancer is big business. As is heart disease and obesity-related ailments in general.

  • Joe R.

    Don’t forget the Tesla is designed and marketed as a sports car. It needs those huge rotors to haul it down faster than regen braking can manage. For normal cars doing normal stops regen can provide all but the last bit of braking. Trains work the same way. They decelerate to anywhere from 1 to 5 mph on the motors alone. The last bit of braking is provided by the friction brakes (except in emergency stops where the friction brakes only are used).

  • Joe R.

    You really need a household income >$200K to be living in most of Manhattan. $75K is maybe $50K after taxes. Figure 25% savings, 25% for retirement, and that leaves you about $2,000 a month for everything else. In many parts of Manhattan rents are over $3,000. Of course, maybe you could pay $3,000+ a month rent if you want to do something really stupid like spend 75% of your take-home pay just for housing, and not save a dime. Most financial planners will tell you that’s living dangerously. It also means living paycheck-to-paycheck. That puts you one paycheck away from being homeless all the time.

  • Carl S

    According to City Data, Two Bridges has a median household income of $55000, Stuyvesant Town has a median household income of $85000, the East Village has a median household income of $76000, Kips Bay has a median household income of $101,000, Lenox Hill has a median household income of $115,000 and Yorkville has a median household income of $97000

  • Vooch

    remove all urban superhighways and simply restore the pre-existing street grid

    the land once blighted would bloom with housing and jobs

  • Joe R.

    What are the typical rents? Everything I’ve read about finances says you shouldn’t spend over 25% of your take-home pay on housing. If lots of people in this city are doing that, then they’re living beyond their means.

  • An increase in EV use will only decrease non-EV use if:

    1) EVs *replace* non-EVs, and/or
    2) Overall traffic levels remain constant or drop (that is, the ratio of EVs to non-EVs rises).

    (1) is many years away (mind you, I *want* this to happen!), and traffic levels have *risen* in recent years, countering (2).

    You’d have to phase out combustion-engine vehicles *and* disincentivize driving (i.e. reduce traffic) to achieve the reduced/eliminated pollution goal. Perhaps we’re already en route to that (albeit VERY slowly), but in the meantime, there are other things we can do – namely, transit/walking/biking investments and highway reform.

  • Carl S

    Actually, about 50% of apartment units in NYC are rent stabilized and other people are lucky enough to have bought units before prices started to rise. Yes, people are willing to spend a large portion of their income to live in Manhattan. This article shows Manhattanites put 49.1% of their income towards rent. Brooklyn and Bronx are even higher percentages but the income may also be less.

  • joshua blumenkopf

    Part of the problem is that emission standards get stricter and stricter with new cars, yet we let old cars stay on the road (especially in LA where cars last longer). For poor people emission standards raise prices on new cars and encourage people to keep older, polluting cars, so poor neighborhoods have more emissions. A move away from standards and towards higher gas tax would be benificial.

  • Joe R.

    That’s just incredible. You’re one paycheck away from disaster when you’re spending that much for a roof over your head. If not for the fact I’m living in a paid-for house I’d have left NYC once average rents got much over $500 a month.

  • John Crane

    “Environmental racism”? Most traffic is in urban areas. Many more people of color live in urban areas. So it stands to reason that pollution will be higher. Pollution is also higher in predominantly white Portland Oregon than predominantly black rural Mississippi. This is a lazy attempt to race-bait without any substantial merit.

    When you throw around the word “racism” where it doesn’t exist, the word loses any meaning.

  • tiabgood

    Environmental Racism is a phrase that has been around at last since the late 80s (that was the first time I ever heard the phrase from a UMich Professor). Even in urban areas, highways tend to either be built more below street level or around the more affluent areas and above ground in black neighborhoods. Go ahead, have a look around the demographics in an urban area for the years that certain highways are built. This does mean something.

    West Oakland is a perfect example of this, not only did they build major above ground highways surrounding and through the neighborhood, the powers that be could not be bothered with the expense of keeping the train as a subway, it comes above ground creating enough noise that it destroyed the black owned businesses in that area, and then back underground for the downtown and uptown neighborhoods. This was not a coincidence. West Oakland was a thriving black neighborhood that was destroyed by the lack of caring by the white city planners.

  • reasonableexplanation

    New cars aren’t actually more expensive in any real sense, when adjusted for inflation (it’s a common misconception).

    An automatic corolla in 1990 sold for $9,218, which in 2017 dollars is $17,858.

    The price of a new 2017 corolla is $18,500. And that 2017 corolla has mpg rating of 28 city/36 highway (compared to 19/26 for the 1990 corolla).

  • GregKamin

    You’re being selective. Why not take instead some other Bay Area freeways?

    Like 101 that goes above ground through sylvan, affluent, white Marin County?

    Or 280 that goes above ground through and past some of the most affluent communities in the (mostly white and Asian) south bay and peninsula?

    Or 580 that is above ground and connects mostly white towns like Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin?

    The reality is that Oakland is the transportation center of the Bay Area and so it has a lot of infrastructure, which includes the port, an airport, various rail systems and, yes, some roads.

    The only real example that stands out to me is how Berkeley undergrounded BART so its affluent white residents would not have to see and hear BART trains. But they don’t pollute, do they?

  • Michael

    My neighborhood is surrounded by the sewage treatment facility, the coal power plant, a 10-story tall interstate highway, and 50 acre superfund site. We consistently vote against these things, but they are of “regional importance.”

  • tiabgood

    Though where there are the largest concentrations of highways meeting were not well populated or were in lower income areas when they were built, which is not the case in Oakland, where they actually raised homes and businesses of African American people. 1000s of papers have been written on Environmental Racism, I was just giving an obvious example close to home.

  • tiabgood

    Here is another example: in SF the 101 was supposed to travel up Fell and
    all the way to the GGB – and the wealthier (and whiter neighborhoods)
    were able to fight and win. So Soma and Hayes Valley which were poorer
    and blacker neighborhoods, had the highways, and then it was surface
    roads through the rest of the city to avoid that noise and air pollution. As for Berkeley – it is a matter of levels of pollution. Of course there is pollution everywhere, but did you know that in West Oakland and East Oakland there is more Lead in the soil than in most of the US, and that is due to the high concentration of highways and industrial work (that often went unchecked). This is not an accident.

    Another example is the Dakota
    Access Pipeline: You know the one that is supposed to be so safe that
    it is totally OK to route through the water source for a Native American Reservation. It was originally slated to go by Bismark, and they fought it and won. The Oil
    companies decided it would be easier PR to fight Native Americans than
    the people of Bismark which over 90% white. And yes, my making this
    conclusion is cynical, but as there is a pattern of Environmental
    Racism, it is an easy conclusion to make.

    I suggest reading more than a
    single article and random internet comments about this topic before you
    make uninformed comments.

  • GregKamin

    I still think you’re exhibiting confirmation bias. When you see a freeway in a black area, you claim it’s “racism”. When you see one in an affluent white area, you just glaze over it.

    There’s probably a relationship between poverty and inferior environments. Historically poorer people lived in riversheds and flatlands, while richer folks live on the hills. You see that clearly in Oakland, for instance. :Lower lying areas are typically more polluted because they contain more infrastructure.

    But the connection, if any, is to economics. So poor whites suffer and rich blacks don’t – race is a second order effect only. Race sells better for those who want to grind an axe or play a card.

    You also ignore the fact that wealthier people can afford to move away from dirty areas and poor folks cannot. In such a case the demographic doesn’t drive the infrastructure but rather the other way about.

  • Jason

    ($75,000*.3)/12 = $1,875. It’s doable if you have roommates.

  • Jason

    The standard 30% of income on housing figure assumes you’re spending something like 20-25% of your income on transportation. Which is basically built on the assumption of having a car. What transportation costs does someone living in Manhattan routinely incur beyond a 30 day unlimited Metrocard? At the current price of $121 for a 30 day unlimited, on an annual basis that’s a hair under 2% of gross annual income for someone making $75,000.

    So getting close to 50% of your income on housing isn’t great, but if it’s in Manhattan it’s probably not worse than the situation of someone living in a car-dependent area who’d be called car/transportation-burdened so I don’t think the standard figures really apply for Manhattanites.

  • tiabgood

    Have you ever heard of the term redlining? If not, I recommend looking it up before reading the rest of what I have to say. As redlining extensively happened until the 1970s – when a lot of the highways/industrial areas/transportation infrastructure in this country was built with little to no environmental standards and redlined areas were targeted as they were less regulated with zoning laws as cities literally wrote them off, which means this is where the infrastruture was put in that has caused and continues to cause much of the pollution that occurs today. And yes, that was very much along race lines and had nothing to do with economics, other than the fact that is enforced that black people stay in poorer neighborhoods.

    Here is an article with some more statistics for you:

    This is not just a card being played. There are overwhelming statistics on this. And if you are going to go with your idea that it is just economics, maybe you should start looking at economic class mobility with white people vs black people, as you will see it is also harder for someone who is black to have upward mobility than someone who is white. Or how about the fact that someone who is white who has committed a crime gets less time for the same crime committed by someone who is black? I know there are exceptions, but statistics shows this is a pattern. Much like there is a pattern of Environmental Racism.

    Ignoring racism in our society does not make it go away.

  • Joe R.

    Certainly true but the usual recommendations as I learned them are as follows:

    25% housing
    25% for everything else (including transportation)
    25% savings
    25% retirement

    If you pay 50% for housing then you’re taking away from the other categories. Hopefully most of that comes from the “everything else” category, which I guess is possible if you don’t own a car. If the net result is you only put 20% into savings and 20% into retirement that’s not completely horrible. I’m more concerned about people spending so much on housing they save nothing and put nothing into retirement. These people will be forced to work until they die.

    I personally lean in the camp of spending much less than 25% on housing. I guess you can do that, even at typical NYC rents, if you set up the apartment basically as a barracks where you sleep 8 or 10. You just need to find like-minded people and you’ll be paying under $500 a month. I cut my housing expenses by just staying with my parents, and “paying” for my room/board by doing a lot of stuff they otherwise would have needed contractors for. Not much point in leaving given that I couldn’t afford even a modest apartment on what I usually make. That, plus my general frugal ways, meant I usually put away 90+% of what I made. Worthwhile as I’m probably retiring soon. I’ll be 55 in November. My impetus for doing this was the fact I hated every job I ever had. I said to myself no way do I want to still be a wage slave forever.

  • Joe R.

    Correct but poor people never buy new cars. A poor person might end up with that 2017 Corolla when it’s ten years old and they can get it for a few thousand.

  • Joe R.

    Wouldn’t you base the calculation on your after tax income? You don’t see $75K when you make $75K. More like $50K in NYC. So that would be closer to $1250. You can find that if you have one roommate and live in the outer boroughs.

    There are actually people who spend way less on housing with multiple roommates. In the house next door it looks like there are about 6 people living in the basement. I think a basement in my area probably rents for under $1500 a month, so that’s ~$300 a month each. Probably all they could afford on what they make anyway (i.e. they look like restaurant workers who might make $3 or $4 an hour)

  • reasonableexplanation

    Okay? The new price being the same would suggest the used price would scale similarly. A poor person could buy a 10 year old corolla in 1990 for a similar inflation adjusted price as a 10 year old corolla in 2017.

    The original posters point was that new cars cost more than they used to due to new emissions regulations, and that’s just not true.

  • Joe R.

    No arguing with that. I guess the larger point is poor people don’t replace their cars until they’re literally falling apart at the seams. Newer cars actually tend to last longer. I recall back in the 1970s or 1980s many cars barely made it to ten years. By the 1990s 15 to 20 years wasn’t uncommon. So you actually have a lot of much older cars on the road now.

    Of course, EVs will make a lot of this moot. First off, they might easily last 30 or 40 years. It depends upon the battery, plus how much it will cost to replace when it dies. And age won’t matter given that there are no emissions. The only thing is given the longevity of current cars, it might take two decades before EVs finally “trickle down” to the poor. Maybe we can accelerate that a bit by having a “cash for old ICE clunkers” program.

  • GregKamin

    “Ignoring racism in our society does not make it go away.”

    Maybe not, but seeing it everywhere whether it is actually there or not isn’t helpful either. The number of allegations of racism greatly exceeds the number of actual instances of it.

    Again, while I get that redlining has happened, at least historically, the reality is that freeway routes get chosen mostly for topographical/topological reasons. You build them on low-lying, flatter areas, partly because its easier and cheaper, and partly because typically that’s where the population centers are.

    To allege racism you have at least to make an effort to see if there are other explanations and reasons, but you seem way more motivated to see racism than to see other factors. And that tells us more about you than it tells us about society.

    You have given one example of a Bay Area freeway in a black area and I have given 3 examples of a Bay Area freeway in a white area. Your argument is hanging by a thread.

    And you conflate “black” with “poor”, almost insultingly. Most poor people in America are white, by a big margin..

  • tiabgood

    I have given you examples where how the freeways were built where neighborhoods have a much higher level of pollution due to the high concentration of multiple freeways, and you have given places where single highways go through and there is still a low level of pollution.

    From the the first paragraph of reason the Cypress Freeway was constructed in West Oakland on the Wiki Page here:

    “Built during the “white roads through black bedrooms” era, the route was partially chosen to displace perceived slums in West Oakland.”

    This is not seeing racism where it does not exist – as this has been a known and accepted factor in urban planning. It says something about you that you are so intent on fighting this.

    “Most poor people in America are white, by a big margin..”

    Thanks for pointing this out. The Nation article that I gave you showed you that higher amounts of pollution tends to be more prevalent on based on neighborhood racial makeup, which tells us this is based on race and not economic issues as you are arguing.

    I am not sure where you think I was conflating poor and black – when I have only spoken about specific poorer black neighborhoods and did not make any generalizations about black people in this country on a whole, that would be an entirely different argument. Good try with this straw man.

    “The number of allegations of racism greatly exceeds the number of actual instances of it.”

    And due to this statement, you have confirmed your bias. There is nothing that backs this statement except your bias. It is insulting that you do not believe people when they share their experiences.

  • Stephen Simac

    Some good points by all sides. Property values and rents are lower near busy highways because of air pollution (love that acronym of TRAP) and noise pollution. Poor people are forced by economic pressures to rent or buy homes where it’s cheaper, which may be rural, suburban or urban. Even in affluent Marin county (where I live) poorer people live closer to highways and train tracks, not much industry here. By sheer numbers of poor, it’s mostly white children, but more blacks and Latinos are poor as a percentage of their population. Cleaner motor vehicles and quieter traffic volume may just gentrify those neighborhoods near highways.

  • Stephen Simac

    Fewer than 10% of car buyers purchase new cars, so the rest of car owners are forced to buy their handmedowns after the joy (and reliability) has worn off. Car manufacturers aim for this minority of drivers in their design and marketing. Everyone else who may have quite different needs is limited in their “choices”, any color you want as long as it’s black.

  • Carl S

    Jason has a point. I bike to work in the city for most of the year and probably spend only about $700 per year on commuting (including bike repairs) while coworkers that live in the suburbs spend $1452 annually for the subway, between roughly $2700 to $4700 for monthly railroad passes and probably over $8000 a lease, insurance and gas for a mid size car. If they are married they would probably also need to spend on a second car and the cost of the oil, electricity, repairs and taxes on the house probably add up to another $15-20000 per year. The mortgage for an average house is probably $29000-$36000 per year depending how far out you live. I know the median income for a family on Long Island is about $95000. Between the mortgage, taxes and housing expenses they must be paying close to 50% of their pre-tax income and maybe another 20% for transportation. Post tax it would be much higher.

  • Ray

    We need to move to a more automated road pricing mechanism that can put a price on pollution. Add per-mile pollution fees onto vehicle travel. The more you pollute, the more you pay. We will quickly see a change in behavior. The government is too afraid to use pricing to control environment damage, and too interested in just subsidizing good environmental behavior. Tax, Tax, Tax the polluters is what I say.

  • GregKamin

    Regarding your last paragraph, what that really says is that you believe that the number of false allegations of racism is zero. Clearly that cannot possibly be close to true.

    Read the comments by Stephen and John as well. This issue is much more nuanced and complex than your knee-jerk (“it’s all racism”) over-simplification. You’re seeing second and third order effects and attributing a racial motive.

    Even when a highway does go through a poor neighborhood (and many do not) then, regardless of its racial mix, it’s usually because that is the most direct, simplest cheapest-to-build route. Highways and railroads typically follow river valleys, i.e. the flatter, lower route, for obvious engineering and cost reasons.

    Some rich neighborhoods may successfully get projects diverted or undergrounded, but the idea that road planners and engineers are all screaming racists and select highway routes based solely on race is bizarrely inacccurate.

  • tiabgood

    You really like jumping to big conclusions with no backing. Believing that someone has been wronged as a default does not mean there are zero false allegations of racism. But stating that the vast majority of reported racism without any proof is also a very knee-jerk reaction and for those who have been wronged is insulting.

    Did I say it is “all racism” Nope. Did I give you burden of proof on a larger statistic scale? Yes. And did I give you a term that is highly racially motivated that was used regularly in Urban Planning that is very racist? Yes.

    Here is one more article that I am sure you will not read since all your opinions seems to be based on gut feeling, and not actual facts that discusses discriminatory practices in infrastructure architecture practices. I am hoping that others reading this thread might:

    Since you are arguing only with your feelings and have nothing to back those up, other than your virtual fingers in ears while saying “la la la la there is no racism here” I am out of this conversation. You are lucky that you can ignore and doubt the racism that is around you. Not all of us can.

  • rohmen

    Whether it’s smart or not, I recall my mortgage broker applying the 28/36 rule (no more than 28% of income to housing, and no more than 36% to total debt) to my pre-tax income.

    That actually resulted in a pre-approval for a mortgage that I personally found ridiculous and didn’t want to get saddled with, BUT that is the reality (and pretty standard metric) for many people when it comes to housing and what they feel they can afford.

  • Joe R.

    And that’s why people are in debt they’ll never get out of. And also why the crash in 2008 happened. Giving people more debt than they can reasonably afford is asking for trouble. When I went to the bank earlier this year to add money to my retirement accounts I also discussed a few other things about my finances. Among them was the eventuality of buying out my sibling’s share of my mom’s house once she passed. They actually suggested using a mortgage to pay for it even though I’m adament about just giving them cash (after also chewing down the amount to account for being my mother’s only caretaker). Note that I’m 54 now, and could quite possibly be well into my 60s, perhaps even 70s, when my mom goes. Even 40 years ago banks were reluctant to give people mortgages if they would still be paying them off at 65+. A 54 year old might have gotten a 10 year mortgage, at best a 15 year mortgage if they had really good credit, but that’s it. And now banks are actually willing to give mortgages where the person is possibly over 65 when they start making payments?

    Don’t even get me started on reverse mortgages. A residence is typically the primary way parents pass on any significant wealth to their children. But all the shysters pushing reverse mortgages are ending that path to increasing wealth. We actually had people bothering us for reverse mortgages. I told them my mom’s monthly income is actually more than needed for expenses (not a lie), and we already have all the material things we need. Of course, they started in about extravagances like money for vacations or cars. My mom can no longer drive, and in her current state can’t really travel. At that point they shut up. Anyway, I can understand reverse mortgages if you have medical expenses, are really short paying for basic necessities, perhaps want to help your grandkids with college, or maybe want to do some needed upgrades on your home. Those are all sound investments. I never understood people borrowing, especially via home equity loans, to pay for more consumption. Speaking of home equity loans, that’s another dumb idea which belongs on the dustbin of history.

    Sorry for the long-winded response. I just strongly feel people should live within their means. Sure, housing prices here in both the city and suburbs are crazy. The way around this is extended families. Nothing wrong if the grandparents, parents, and adult children share a residence. The total household income increases while each person’s share of housing expenses decreases. Either that, or move someplace with less expensive housing.

  • Joe R.

    The bottom line is total housing plus transportation costs are crazy high in this part of the country whether you live in the city or suburbs. You can mitigate that with either roommates or extended families but in a way I blame the ease of borrowing in part for these crazy prices. The purchase price of my mom’s home was $52K in 1978. Adjusted for inflation this would be $197K today, which actually would be very affordable even if you only had a household income of $75K. In reality the home could probably sell for $650K to $700K. What happened to make housing costs rise at triple the general inflation rate? Sure, there is more demand with more people, but not enough to account for this kind of increase. Rather, it’s the ease with which banks have lent money to people not really in a position to afford it which has driven prices sky high. If banks had tighter standards, most people couldn’t borrow enough to sustain these kinds of prices. Prices for my mom’s home might not be $200K, but they probably wouldn’t be much over $300K (that seems like a reasonable number to account for the increased demand).

    Between the mortgage, taxes and housing expenses they must be paying close to 50% of their pre-tax income and maybe another 20% for transportation. Post tax it would be much higher.

    Unless they have a lot to write off it’s that means ALL their post tax income is going for housing or transportation. In NYC if you make halfway decent money you’re paying at least 30% of it in taxes. I wrote off $49K for my retirement savings last year and I still paid 23% in taxes.Without those writeoffs it would have been more like 40%.

  • joshua blumenkopf

    Yes we have gotten better at making cars, but you can find cars in Mexico under $8000, while in the US they start at 14K. They would never pass US safety/emission standard but so wouldn’t the cars in the US they would replace.


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