“Affordability” is about far more than just the price of rent.
Ask a dozen strangers on the street what they think the term “affordable housing” means, and you’ll likely get a dozen answers. Though the Department of Housing and Urban development defines “affordable” with a simple number — no more than 30% of total household income — the reality of what it means to be able to comfortably make the rent or the mortgage every month can be more complicated. When you choose a home, after all, you’re not just choosing a roof over your head; you’re choosing a neighborhood, and all of the people, amenities, and services that come (or don’t come) with it.
So let’s break down some of the hidden costs that deceptively simple number might overlook — and why we need to change our fundamental approach to development if we want to make housing truly affordable for more people.
1. Transportation costs
The fundamental reason that many so-called affordable housing options in our cities aren’t really so affordable? Location, location, location. Urbanists around the world have long recognized that a cheap apartment can cost you a lot more than you think if it’s located in an area that puts you miles out of reach of even the most basic services — and in many of our places, that’s exactly where the cheapest housing tends to be.
With the average annual cost of vehicle ownership hovering at $8,469 per year and 57% of American households owning two or more cars, residents of cities dominated by auto-centric development patterns may find that their transportation costs rival or even outstrip what they pay in rent or a mortgage. The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation (H+T®) Affordability Index provides a searchable database that spells out exactly what this means for your specific community; according to them, in my home city of St. Louis, only 1% of housing is classified as “location efficient,” and the average St. Louisan pays up to 40% of their income on housing and transportation when combined.
That might sound reasonable enough. But consider that this is only an average; for a low-income family already paying 30% of their income towards the rent, adding $8,500 or more per year in transportation costs is catastrophic. And when you break down exactly what our auto-centric road network puts out of reach, the bills only multiply.
2. Access to jobs
When affordable housing is located in neighborhoods with limited transportation options or unreliable transit systems, it doesn't just increase low-income residents' expenses — it also impacts their incomes.
In too many American cities, restrictive zoning codes keep housing and job centers strictly quarantined from one another. Add in the long distances between the two that are encouraged by our dominant development pattern (read: ultra car-friendly), and the average American commuter travels a whopping 15 miles each way to get to work, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. For rent-burdened workers, that can all but mean that a car is a necessary expense — and for those that can’t afford a vehicle of their own, that puts breadwinners at the mercy of a transit system that, in many American cities, isn’t always reliable.
If you’ve ever tried to survive on a low-wage hourly job, you know firsthand how much more expensive life can get if your so-called affordable home isn’t located within easy traveling distance of your place of work. And if you haven’t lived on jobs like this, just picture it: you wake up in the morning and drive for nearly an hour in stop and go traffic, spending about the same amount of money as you spent in rent that day along the way (at least when you parse out your car payment, insurance, gas and maintenance — and believe me, when you’re watching that odometer climb, you’re doing that math in your head.)
Or else, you scrap together what you can for bus fare — the rent’s high enough that you can’t always afford an unlimited monthly pass at the start of the month — and string together a commute across three not-so-reliable city bus routes and maybe a train, praying that if there’s a station delay your boss won’t fire you for being late. If you’re lucky, at the end of a full time shift you turn around and go home that same uncertain or expensive way at the end of the day; if you’re not, you finish your part time shift and then go to your second job, and then maybe your third — the costs multiplying the more diffuse your city is and the more dynamic your schedule is. It’s no surprise that The Atlantic reports that Americans making $35,000 a year or less pay an average of $21 per day just to afford their daily commute, versus just $12 per day for the average full time worker.
3. Access to childcare
But what if, on top of all of a killer commute, you have a young kid?
For lower-income earners who also happen to be parents, being forced to rent a cheap apartment in a non-walkable neighborhood might jack up your childcare costs, too. For families who rely on daycare centers, the same factors that often put job centers out of reach also tend to put preschools in places that are too far to travel to easily (and even if they’re physically accessible, that doesn’t mean they’re financially doable for the average low-income parent.).
And for families who are lucky enough to have grandma or grandpa around to babysit? Well, they might not be so nearby, either. One of the most important items on the Strong Towns Strength Test asks whether three generations of a single family could afford suitable homes within walking distance of one another. What’s behind that question is not just a commitment to the family unit and to the dignity of citizens at every stage of life: in part, it’s the harsh reality that for the working poor or even the middle class, access to immediate relatives who can provide low cost or free in-home childcare can be what separates a family from financial disaster.
When our neighborhoods are built to a non-human-scaled standard that makes it all but impossible for aging and/or mobility impaired residents to live and remain in walkable neighborhoods, that has a real dollar cost — both for senior citizens themselves and for any parent who relies on their extended families to help with the kids, just as centuries of parents before them have done.
And even as children get older and need less hands-on care, the diffuse development pattern that dominates our places can keep the costs of parenting high. If you’ve got a tight-knit, human-scaled neighborhood, chances are you can walk your kid to the nearest playground, library or community center after school and trust that they’ll be kept busy, happy and safe. But if your affordable apartment happens to be located in an area that’s built exclusively for cars, even the most independent kid is going to cost a lot more money to entertain.
The myth of the suburban soccer mom van didn’t come from nowhere — and the suburban poor often don’t have the option to load the kids up in the Grand Caravan and take them to a spendy rec league, even if their affordable home puts them miles from the nearest free alternative. (To read more about why that's a big problem, check out another item on the Strong Towns strength test about building livable cities for children.)
4. Access to community connection
As you’ve read this list, you might have noticed a pattern. All the things I’ve mentioned that make affordable housing not-so-affordable have to do with our dominant style of city and town development, which favors mega-projects, miles of wide, dangerous roads, and long, unnecessary distances between people and the communities they would otherwise rely on. But that doesn’t affect only the residents of affordable housing: that makes life more expensive (and less socially rich) for every single one of us.
Whether we’re paying 30% of our income to a landlord or our mortgage is paid off, living in human-scaled places brings us into direct, daily contact with our neighbors — and those connections, too, are worth real money, especially when our neighborhoods are economically diverse. So much of American housing (and especially the narrow slice of housing that poor Americans can afford) is located in areas that are deep into cycles of decline. Whether that takes the form of a crumbling suburb or a nearly-vacant city block, there are fewer eyes on the street to watch neighborhood kids playing ball from front stoops, fewer friendly conversations on street corners with neighbors of all income levels who might connect you with a job when you’re out of work, fewer long-term residents who can help a newcomer learn the nuances of their new home...the list goes on. When we talk about creating affordable housing, we also need to factor in the richness of real, complex human life in the surrounding neighborhood—because no matter how much you spend on housing, life is literally and figuratively poorer without it.
These, of course, are only a small fraction of the things that can make so-called "affordable" housing way too expensive. I’m leaving out many of the vast social, political, and financial forces that can make life so hard for the residents of these homes; other writers can and have written about our national crises surrounding eviction rates, leasing discrimination, mortgage access inequity, household debt to income ratios, and so much more.
But if you’re looking for something that anyone can do, right now, to help put affordable housing within reach of more people, a good place to start would be this: stop talking about “affordable housing” in a vacuum, and start talking about building Strong Towns. Start a conversation with one friend about creating a world where we don’t just have cheap rents and bottom-of-the-barrel mortgage payments, but also jobs nearby, childcare we can afford, streets that are safe and easy to walk and bike along, family and friends of all ages, mobility, and income levels just around the corner, and the invisible web of dynamic neighborhood connections that can make life more livable for all people, especially as those neighborhoods shift over time.
And start that conversation today. Because it’s more than about affordability: it’s about doing the best we can by the places (and people) we care about.