Affordable living, not just affordable housing

Viewed in isolation, housing affordability is a tough challenge for new urbanists. That’s because new urbanists are in the business of planning and developing amenities close to housing. Land values within walking distance of transit stations, shops, parks, schools, and other facilities — all other things being equal — will always be higher than where people have to drive everywhere, notes Jennifer Hurley, a Philadelphia planner. Given that dynamic, how can the goal of healthy, diverse, mixed-income, and mixed-use neighborhoods be achieved? Hurley and other new urbanists are recognizing that housing affordability should not be an end in itself — a better goal is affordable living. The truth is that anyone can achieve housing affordability in any metro area — if you live far enough away from where the action is. But then your transportation costs probably will rise or your income fall, neither of which is a bargain. Transportation — second only to housing in household expenditures — is closely linked with housing choice, and costs vary tremendously according to where you live. The Surface Transportation Policy Project did a study that showed that households in the New York metro area spent 15.1 percent of their income on transportation — close to 10 percentage points less than Tampa, where households spent 24.6 percent of their income on transportation. Despite New York City’s higher housing costs, residents of Tampa spent substantially more on these combined expenditures (56.4 percent versus 52.2 percent). Sprawling metros have the highest mobility costs, the study showed. The impact is even more pronounced within a particular metro area, according to a study of the Minneapolis/St. Paul region by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Reconnecting America. A family living close to downtown spends half as much on transportation as a family living in an outlying suburb — a difference of nearly $6,000 a year. The concept is called location efficiency. Another vital point: neighborhoods with lower transportation costs also have good access to high-paying jobs. The scarcity of urbanism So urban places can and do make sense in terms of affordability. One problem, however, is that good urban places have become relatively scarce in recent decades — because they have been made illegal by land use laws. In his book, Zoned Out, Jonathan Levine demonstrates that most zoning puts limits on density and setbacks and separates uses. Zoning therefore forces citizens to buy lower density, more disconnected housing than they would in a free market. Over 50 or 60 years, those policies have also used up more scarce land around key metro areas — further driving up prices. New urbanists are battling those forces by designing and building more urbanism and creating codes that allow more diversity in the built environment. This effort is still in its infancy, but one day, maybe, most land use codes will allow urbanism to thrive and new walkable communities will become commonplace. That will reduce transportation costs and the premium that is placed on well-designed urban neighborhoods. That goal is a long way off. In the meantime, new urbanists have an obligation to make communities as affordable as possible. One strategy is to build neighborhoods with diverse housing types including granny flats, courtyard cottages, small townhouses, and various types of rental units. Such neighborhoods — which new urbanists are good at designing — can serve people in all stages of life, an important goal of affordability. Another group of people — on the lower rungs of the class ladder — aren’t helped much by diversity of building type, Hurley notes. To build truly mixed-income neighborhoods, she says, mechanisms like community land trusts can be implemented that provide permanent affordable housing for lower-income households by limiting appreciation on a certain amount of land. Affordable living is not easy to achieve. But with transportation costs rising rapidly, it’s a cause that new urbanists can contribute to with conviction.
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