Driving up the cost of housing

Taking public transportation into account


By Jobert Poblette


GREEN CITY If you think living in the Bay Area is expensive, think about what it would be like if you didn't have access to public transportation. A new report by Chicago-based think tank Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) considers just that problem, offering a new way of understanding just what constitutes affordable housing.

The CNT report — dubbed the Housing and Transportation (H+T) Affordability Index (www.htaindex.cnt.org) — maps housing affordability for 337 metropolitan areas and provides before-and-after snapshots that show how affordability changes when transportation costs are taken into account.

Affordable housing is usually defined as consuming 30 percent or less of a household's income, but CNT proposes a redefinition. Under CNT's new definition, housing is only considered affordable if the sum of housing and transportation costs constitutes 45 percent or less of household income. That redefinition would have dramatic effects on the Bay Area's affordability picture.

Many communities in the region that would have been considered affordable under the old definition — including large swaths of Hayward, Marin County, Sacramento, and Stockton — would be unaffordable under the new standard. And San Francisco, well served by public transit, would be deemed a lot more affordable.

The difference that smart planning and public transportation make can be huge, especially for households already feeling the pinch of a weak economy. According to CNT, transportation costs in "location efficient" neighborhoods — its term for "compact, mixed-use communities with a balance of housing, jobs, and stores, and easy access to transit" — can be as low as 12 percent of a household's budget versus up to 32 percent for less efficient neighborhoods where residents must drive to jobs and services.

For example, CNT calculated an annual transportation cost difference of $2,780 between Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood, which it calls "compact," and the city of Antioch, which it considers "dispersed."

CNT says "location efficiency" in development can translate to big savings. According to its report, if 50 percent of new growth in the Bay Area occurs in compact rather than dispersed neighborhoods, the region could collectively save more than $1.1 billion in transportation costs.

Besides reducing a community's environmental impact and improving residents' quality of life, the report argues that things like walkability, proximity to jobs and services, and efficient public transportation help make an area more livable and affordable. The report also raises questions about the wisdom of cutting public transportation, especially in a period when many households are being forced out of their homes.

CNT hopes that its analysis will lead to more awareness for policy makers and more transparency for consumers. "What we're looking for is a new definition of affordability, transportation cost disclosures for consumers, and incentives to build more compact communities around transit," CNT spokesperson Nicole Gotthelf told us.

Gotthelf said the Bay Area has been at the forefront of this issue, specifically mentioning the work of the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the agency that plans, coordinates, and finances transportation in the nine counties that make up the region. "They've been actively trying to understand the housing and transportation trade-offs for Bay Area households."

In turn, MTC offered support for the principles behind the CNT study. "We agree that it is good policy to promote the development of affordable housing at or near transit hubs," MTC spokesperson John Goodwin told the Guardian.