"A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families"

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This blog seldom talks directly about the problems of the poor, but a post by Mark Thoma, citing a Center for Housing Policy study, provided striking and disheartening information about the plight of the impoverished class.

It’s not news, but the poor can’t win. They often must live far from their workplaces to find affordable housing, yet give up much of the savings in higher transportation costs. Every $1 in home cost savings is offset by an average $0.77 in higher transportation costs. And that makes no allowance for intangible costs of stress, and for parents, less time with and supervision of their children.

This report, which looked at 28 metropolitan areas to understand this problem in more depth, found that the total housing + transportation burden was surprisingly consistent (and high), suggesting that planners need to tackle these problems in an integrated fashion.

From the study:

Nationally, for every dollar a working family saves on housing, it spends 77 cents more on transportation. This was one of the dramatic findings from the Center’s earlier study, Something’s Gotta Give, which reflects the basic tradeoff many working families face between paying a greater share of their income for housing or enduring long commutes and high transportation costs. But how does this tradeoff play out at the local level? Are there metropolitan areas in which this tradeoff is more or less pronounced? Where do working families end up living within each area, and how does the availability of housing affect their choices? And how does the varying cost of housing and transportation within a region affect families’ combined housing and transportation burdens?

To answer those questions, the Center conducted a new study whose results are summarized in this publication. Among other innovations, this study presents, for the first time, the combined housing and transportation cost burdens of working families in 28 metropolitan areas at the neighborhood level. It also provides an overview of where working families live in each of the 28 areas and how their location decisions affect their commute times and costs. The study provides a particularly detailed look at 10 metropolitan areas—Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Ft.Worth, Denver, Greater Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington D.C.-Baltimore. Detailed information on these and the other 18 metropolitan areas studied is available at: http://www.nhc.org/index/heavyload.

On average, the study found that working families in the 28 metropolitan areas spend about 57 percent of their incomes on the combined costs of housing and transportation, with roughly 28 percent of income going for housing and 29 percent going for transportation. While the share of income devoted to housing or transportation varies from area to area, the combined costs of the two expenses are surprisingly constant. In areas where families spend more on housing, they tend to spend less on transportation, and vice-versa. However, in all the metropolitan areas there are neighborhoods where working families are saddled with both high housing and high transportation cost burdens.

In their search for lower cost housing, working families often locate far from their place of work, dramatically increasing their transportation costs and commute times. Indeed, for many such families, their transportation costs exceed their housing costs. Recent census data suggest this trend may be accelerating. Of the 20 fastest growing counties in the United States, 15 are located 30 miles or more from the closest central business district.

The study also found impacts on the community. As more and more working families commute to distant job centers from their homes, clogged and congested roads become the norm in surrounding communities.

A growing number of communities are identifying the lack of affordable housing and the increase in commute times and traffic congestion as priority issues. But they haven’t always linked these two sets of issues. This study suggests it is imperative for cities and regions to consider housing and transportation policy together. The study also points to the importance of infill development that expands the supply of affordable housing in inner city and older suburban neighborhoods that have good access to traditional job centers; the development of more affordable housing near transportation hubs and suburban employment centers; providing good quality and reliable transit for suburb to suburb commuting, as well as for helping families in the outer suburbs get into the central city; and policies to encourage car sharing and to reduce the costs of car ownership for families who cannot easily get to work via public transit.

The Center hopes the information in this report will be a catalyst for the development of more integrated policymaking at the local, regional and national levels that helps to reduce the heavy load of housing and transportation for working families and the communities in which they live.

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