The Yardstick

Minimizing Housing and Transportation Costs in Metro Washington

June 26, 2012

Before fuel and energy costs began spiking in recent years, the old saying “drive until you qualify” used to reflect how residents could find housing in Metro Washington: the further from the region’s core employment areas, the more affordable housing became and the lower your overall expenses.

This assumption, however, no longer holds true. With housing and transportation expenses together costing 52 cents out of every dollar of average household income, affordability is no longer definable just in terms of housing payments. Even as housing becomes more affordable by distance, after 12 to 15 miles outside employment centers, transportation expenses pile up quickly, and these costs are significantly greater for low- and moderate-income families.

Furthermore, unlike housing costs, which are typically fixed as monthly rent or mortgage dues, transportation costs are more difficult to track. According to D.C. Department of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning—who serves as a Vice Chair of the Region Forward Coalition—unless a household carries transportation debt (i.e. car loans), transportation costs do not appear in mortgage payments.

As a part of a concerted effort to help residents reduce housing and transportation costs, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments hosted a meeting joined by panelists from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Housing and Transportation Affordability Initiative (HTA Initiative) and other colleagues, including Ms. Tregoning, HTA Project Director Noreen Beatley, Policy Analyst Stefanie Shull  from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and Chris Zimmerman from the Arlington County Board.

The panel largely focused on HUD’s Location Affordability Portal and its two tools, the Location Affordability Index and My Transportation Cost Calculator. The Index, which will be put together with the help of leading researchers, practitioners, and independent analysts, will estimate affordability by combining data from the Census, American Community survey, and CNT’s All Transit Database. The Calculator, a user-friendly interface, will allow individuals to enter household information (e.g. income, household size, work location, etc.) to produce transportation cost estimates.

In addition to providing households a better idea of their living expenses, these tools will help regional planners incorporate housing and transportation costs into planning decisions and policymakers better analyze the costs and benefits of community investments. The index will also be another key device in COG’s toolkit to help meet the Region Forward Target in keeping housing and transportation costs below 45% of median household income over the next decade (the Region Forward Baseline Progress Report notes a standard combination for affordability of 30% and 15% of annual income dedicated to housing and transportation, respectively).

By better gauging each community’s affordability, these tools will help families, planners, and policymakers make more informed decisions. In addition, they will illustrate the benefits of living in our region’s activity centers with access to transit, jobs, and many other amenities nearby.   “It’s not simply a matter of building more affordable housing,” Ms. Tregoning mentioned, “it’s also choosing where to build that housing and how you could diversify land usage.”