For four years, the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has been turning the conventional definition of affordable housing on its head with the H+T Affordability Index, which redefines affordability to include the transportation costs inherent in a home’s location. The index has just been expanded to cover 337 metropolitan areas, showing in startling clarity that the current U.S. pattern of sprawling development and lack of public transportation options is neither affordable nor environmentally sound.
The traditional government definition of an “affordable” neighborhood is one where 30% or less of a family’s income goes toward housing. CNT’s H+T Affordability Index redefines an affordable community as one where 45% or less of a family’s income goes towards housing and transportation. As the above map of the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area shows, many places considered affordable under the traditional definition really aren’t when transportation costs are incorporated.
Under the conventional definition of affordability, 69% of U.S. communities have average housing costs that are considered “affordable” to the typical household. But when factoring in the cost of transportation, access to affordable housing plummets to 40%. In fact, 48,000 communities deemed affordable under the old measure are actually unaffordable.
The good news is that many federal policymakers understand the impact of transportation on land use, housing, environment and affordability. First, a new partnership between USDOT, EPA and the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development to coordinate and invest in sustainable development is included in President Obama’s 2011 budget. Second, Senator Dodd (D-CT) and Representative Cohen (D-TN) have both introduced livability bills that would establish offices of sustainability in HUD and DOT that would provide competitive grants for transit-oriented development projects throughout the country. Third, the next federal transportation bill could provide even more funding and incentives to increase transportation choices and greater proximity between housing, transit and jobs.