Rent isn’t the only variable that determines how affordable a particular home is. Access to transit and amenities like groceries matters, too.
Between 2001 and 2008, the Illinois Housing Development Authority greenlit 248 affordable housing developments in the Chicago area. In Illinois, affordable housing operates on a simple principle: housing costs shouldn’t exceed 30 percent of a family’s annual budget. But rent isn’t the only variable that determines how affordable a particular home is. Sustainability matters, too.
Some of the Chicago housing developments had better access to trains and bus lines; others went into denser communities, where grocery stores and shops are accessible on foot or by bike. When the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a nonprofit that promotes urban sustainability, looked at average transportation costs associated with these developments, it found (PDF) a difference of $3,000 between the least and most “location-efficient”—sustainable—communities.
Transportation costs don’t only bust the budgets of low-income households. As the price of gas rises, working- and middle-class families can find themselves in what the New America Foundation calls “the energy trap” — stuck with the high costs of car ownership and fuel. It’s a particular problem for families that have moved out to the exurbs in search of more affordable housing without considering how much more they’ll have to pay to reach their jobs or their grocery store.
Environmental and economic priorities are often at odds to each other, but in this case, they line up. “Greater economic sustainability at the household level also leads to better environmental outcomes,” says Maria Choca Urban, the director of CNT’s transportation and community development program. Sustainability advocates often start with the premise that dense, transit-accessible community save energy. But start with saving money for individual households — savings that people might feel more connected to — and the end point is the same.
Finding sustainable housing doesn’t necessarily mean living in the city, either. Some suburban locations keep transportation costs low, offering access to good schools and safer streets. But Choca Urban cautions, “You can't just willy-nilly say you're going to the suburbs. There are better locations whether you're looking at the suburbs or the city.” Just being near a train or bus line isn’t enough to ensure lower costs, for instance: frequency of service matters, too.
CNT thinks the key is to make decisions about the location of affordable housing developments based on the combined cost of housing and transportation. Instead of limiting housing costs to 30 percent of a household’s budget, CNT is recommending agencies limit total housing and transportation costs to 45 percent. “From where we sit, it is reasonable to pay a little more for your housing if your transportation costs come within that 45 percent standard,” says Choca Urban.
In other words, it might be more expensive to live in a community where the grocery story is just down the block. But if living there means there’s no need to own a car, it might be the more affordable choice in the end.