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The cost of coming home

Part Four in an ongoing series linking energy consumption and development patterns

With the price at the pump topping record levels, many advocacy groups have published their own version of “10 Tips for Reducing Your Energy Consumption.” While individual efforts – as well as critical thinking in the ongoing alternative fuels debate – are integral, communities also must start planning carefully to achieve the only sure-fire method for curbing America’s oil addiction: cutting car trips. Imagine the possibilities if we stopped subsidizing unnaturally low gas prices, and started letting the market catch up to rising consumer demand for pedestrian and bike-friendly communities near jobs, retail and public transportation. This is part four in an ongoing Metropolitan Planning Council Web series, highlighting how we, as a region, can start recognizing every chance to grow or rebuild as another opportunity to diminish our auto dependency. Check back every other Thursday to learn innovative ways we can beat our oil addiction through sensible growth.

Since the end of World War II, people across the United States have settled in suburban towns, many happily finding what we all want in our communities: quality homes, good schools, spacious parks and quiet, peaceful streets. Some, however, would prefer to stay in the city, but are moving out because they’ve bought into the widely accepted idea that you “get more bang for the buck” by buying in ’burbs.

Even though some suburbs offer a greater variety of homes with attractive price tags, if there is limited or no access to public transit, the costs associated with longer vehicle commutes often out-weigh potential housing cost savings. With gas prices climbing, suburban homeowners’ savings are rapidly eroding. The spike in fuel prices will increase the average household’s total transportation expenditures – the second largest household expenditure – by 15 percent, according to the recent Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) presentation, Housing + Transportation: Moving the Region Toward Greater Affordability . These added costs are putting the squeeze on families in the Chicago area, making it even more urgent to provide a variety of housing options, including affordable apartments and homes, near public transportation.

As policy makers and advocates work to create new affordable housing options, it is key that transportation be factored into day-to-day policy and planning decisions. A family’s ability to afford a home does not just depend on the sales price or rent; it also depends on the cost to travel to and from that home to work, visit friends and family, attend school and church, and run errands. In other words, “If a family finds a home that meets their housing budget, yet has to own two, or even three cars to live there, that home is not so affordable anymore,” said CNT’s Carrie Makarewicz.

Already, more than 730,000 families are stretching beyond their means to afford to live in the Chicago area, and it’s these low and moderate-income families who are hardest hit by the disparities between the location of affordable housing and public transit. In order to solve these disparities, efforts need to be put forth to create affordable housing options near transportation nodes and employment centers.

Several initiatives currently are working to do just that, including:

  • Employer-assisted housing programs, through which employers are providing financial assistance to help their employees live near work or transit;
  • SB 2885 , the “Location Matters” bill signed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich last week to create incentives for employers to invest in and locate near workforce housing and transit options;
  • Metropolitan Mayors Caucus Housing Endorsement Criteria , which provides a means by which communities can review residential housing proposals based on their proximity to jobs and transit;
  • Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning , formally known as the Regional Planning Board, was legislated in 2005 to combine previously separate transportation and land-use planning agencies to better coordinate the two for northeastern Illinois; and
  • the Illinois Comprehensive Housing Plan sets specific goals to build and preserve affordable and workforce housing in Illinois and connect housing to transit, jobs, and other essential services, and bridges the common divide between the state agencies providing capital and service dollars for housing, transportation and other related resources.

Progress is being made, but it’s not enough. Changing housing supply patterns and educating consumers on the financial implications of their choices is going to require a coordinated regional approach. Academics and civic groups can help by assessing the region’s changing demographics and resulting preferences to plan for where and what type of housing is needed. Communities can preserve affordable housing in the face of gentrification by using innovative tools such as housing trust funds, community land trusts and demolition taxes. Local and state leaders can work together to steer affordable housing development near new and redeveloping transit hubs. Nonprofits and financial institutions can educate renters and buyers about the true cost of their housing choices. And regional planners can encourage better connections between housing and job centers, so that workers are less likely to have to commute from one part of the region to the other to get to work every day.

Yes, it’s a tall order – but it’s a necessary one, since both housing and gas costs are projected to continue to rise in coming years. While many factors go into a consumer’s choice about where they want to live, as a region, we have to make sure to provide them with options, including the option to get around without a car.

Read Part One of the series.
Read Part Two of the series.
Read Part Three of the series.

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