Federal agencies highlight the intersection of housing and transportation

People often consider the costs of owning or renting a home and getting to and from it as completely separate items in their budgets. They also likely consider these items as highly personal and local matters beyond the influence of the federal government.

But U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Housing Secretary Julian Castro made the case last week at a Brookings Institution event that President Obama’s Cabinet is working across their respective fields to build creative tools that help local leaders improve their economies and communities based on this relationship.

An American household’s two biggest expenses are housing and transportation, yet transportation costs tend to be discounted when people are making decisions about where to live. As a result, transportation is often referred to as the “hidden cost” of housing.

To that end, the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, in 2013, launched the Location Affordability Portal, which not only aggregates your total housing and transportation costs, but also creates an anonymous costs database for researchers and planners, who can now work to help improve transportation access for potentially millions of Americans.

With the new paradigm of considering housing and transportation costs together, the general rule is that the combined total should be no more than 45 percent of a household’s income. Mobility Lab’s Research Director Stephen Crim has noted that many areas of Arlington County, Va., for example, that are considered unaffordable following the old 30 percent housing rule in fact become affordable when applying the “housing and transportation” 45 percent rule. An otherwise expensive location, for example, may benefit from highly accessible rail and bus transit options, making car ownership (and its associated costs) unnecessary.

When many people think of the housing and transportation equation, they think it only directly affects lower-income households. But it is a factor of concern to middle class, and even fairly wealthy, people as well.

“Poverty is actually pretty expensive, both for the poor and for the country,” Secretary Foxx told the Brookings audience. “People end up becoming more isolated when they move to the suburbs and don’t have transit options.”

Secretary Castro added that the poorest people are affected disproportionately by the lack of investment in mobility options for some neighborhoods.

“We need to stop stacking and segregating poverty. Improving transportation and fair housing are keys to equality and opportunity,” he said. Castro explained that these circumstances have far-reaching effects. “There are 14 neighborhoods in Baltimore, including the one where Freddie Gray lived, that have lower life expectancies than North Korea.”

Foxx agreed that transportation options can often be part of the answer, but that the lack of transportation has often exacerbated housing problems.

“We have a very ugly history of our transportation infrastructure being built,” Foxx said, but added, “Who would have thought we would have light rail in [Los Angeles’ poor] Crenshaw [neighborhood] 30 years ago. We’re starting to see businesses where there were deserts in the past.”

He cited how Rochester, N.Y., recently asked USDOT for a TIGER grant to tear down a highway as representative of how communities – after years and years of narrow-minded thinking that transportation only meant building highways – are rethinking their own designs.

Photo: Bus riders board a Metrobus in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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