Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Urban Policy – Housing + Transportation

Dateline: 8:41 am February 9, 2007 Filed under:

Three influential studies were released in the past year that I think are worth a mention. I attended the release of “One-Fifth of America: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s First Suburbs” last February at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. It was quite an event. Hillary Clinton spoke. There was talk of a national agenda on urban policy. The main idea of the report is first suburbs are aging (both people and buildings) and pose a major challenge with regard to urban policy. What struck me is here we were listening to members of Congress talk about how to deal with the various issues of inner suburbs, but there really is no momentum behind it, much less a true forum for urban policy at the federal level.

The other two studies are related. One, called “The Affordability Index: A New Tool for Measuring the True Affordability of a Housing Choice,” was also released by The Brookings Institution. The other, “A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families,” was released by the Center for Housing Policy, also based in Washington D.C. Both studies assessed the notion that the true cost of living is housing plus transportation, and that buying a home in a distant suburb may seem affordable, but the corresponding increase in the cost of transportation offsets the reduced housing cost.

The Center for Housing Studies focused on “working families” with incomes of $20,000 to $50,000 and found that, in 28 metro areas, they pay the same percentage of income for housing, but 10% more of their income for transportation.

I’m living proof of this. Living in an affordable neighborhood in the city, near light rail, has its advantages. After moving in to our house, I went an entire month before filling my gas tank. With no car payment and an employer (at that time) that paid for a transit pass, my true transportation costs were minimal. Combined with a reasonable mortgage and a great local coffee shop, it is a pretty sweet deal.

The Brookings study looked at the Twin Cities, and considered the cost of housing and transportation in four disparate areas of the metro. The household closest to the metro core and public transportation had the lowest transportation cost, whereas the distant suburban dweller had the highest. Interestingly, though, the household in the inner ring suburb had the lowest combined transportation and housing cost.

And so it all fits together. Investing in mass transit, affordable/workforce housing and mixed-use communities can help make the cost of living more reasonable for countless households. The core cities are an obvious target for this, but perhaps our first/inner ring suburbs deserve the most attention.

“One-Fifth of America” and “The Affordability Index” can be found at the Metropolitan Policy Program at

“A Heavy Load” can be found at

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