Here’s a trade-off for you: Buy a house in the far-flung suburbs to save a few bucks and end up spending half your income on the combined costs of housing and transportation.
In a recent Play-Nooz story, ABC’s Phoenix television station reports that people who think they’re saving money by purchasing in remote suburbs have to pay so much more on automobiles and gasoline that the combined costs of housing and transportation consume about 45 percent of their family income, an amount generally considered unaffordable. Anything this outfit says has to be taken with a large grain of salt, because the reporting can be…well, pretty laughable.
So I checked out this interactive map by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a nonprofit that promotes urban sustainability. Indeed, it appears that when you combine housing and transportation costs, a large part of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area becomes unaffordable. Factoring in housing costs alone does cause a larger region to consume less than 30 percent of the family income. Add transport to the mix, and you see that more people spend 45 percent or more of family income on driving plus housing.
At first glance, this sounds credible, given the astonishing cost of gasoline. I have no car payment, yet in the past month I’ve paid almost $110 just for gas—and I haven’t gone anywhere except up to the college and to a few stores, most of them on my way to and from the college. If I had to pay $300 to $600 a month for a car, as many people do, transportation expenses would run 18 to 32 percent of my income—when I’m teaching three sections. In the summer, when I can’t get a job, such costs would consume 31 to 71 percent of net income.
Spend a few moments studying the housing-only map, though, and you’ll see that large parts of the “drive until you qualify” burbs never offered any bargains. The Southeast Valley—Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe—is pricier than the close-in districts to start with. Granted, they’re new, shiny developments (so shoddily built that they won’t stay that way for long…), and granted, the city of Phoenix has done everything it can to thump centrally located neighborhoods. (The city and the county are run by developers—they take office on boards of supervisors and the city council. It’s in their interest ensure that the central city deteriorates, fostering white flight, so that people will buy their plaster-and-Styrofoam houses in the ever-expanding sprawl.) Scottsdale has always been ridiculously expensive; it’s an enclave of whiteness that has worked to develop a upscale reputation. The area to the northwest is largely occupied by retirement communities; cost of housing and taxes are lower there because of the downward pressure exerted by the demographic. The area to the south of the central city has been low-rent from the git-go; much of it is dangerous slum, schools are horrific, and few who can afford to live elsewhere willingly settle there.
So, I would argue in the first place that new suburban housing is more expensive than centrally located middle-class housing. It’s not true that people buy in the sticks to save money; they buy in the sticks for demographic reasons (if you don’t know whereof I speak, consider the latest bit of hilarity from the state house, which reflects the tenor of our elected leadership) and because they hope for schools that are more or less adequate. People who buy for those reasons don’t concern themselves with the cost of transportation—they regard it as just part of the cost of living.
When you add the cost of automobiles to the cost of housing, you do get a total that consumes way too much of net income. However, Drachman Institute Associate Director Marilyn Robinson’s claim that “If a household can get rid of one car, they can increase their available income by approximately $8,500 a year. They can do that if they have access to good and frequent transit service and if their neighborhoods include amenities like shops and recreation within walking distance” is an absurdity, at least where Arizona cities are concerned.
Few central or suburban neighborhoods are within walking distance of “shops and recreation.” The two grocery stores closest to my house are in unsafe areas and are overpriced specifically because residents living nearby can’t afford cars and so form a kind of captive consumer base. These stores can charge anything they please, because too many of their customers can’t easily shop at the competition. The closest grocery store where I feel safe to get out of my car in the parking lot is three and a half miles from my house. Bicycling over the homicidal streets is out of the question, and you can be very sure I’m not walking seven miles in 110-degree heat to buy a few groceries.
There is no credible public transportation here. Buses are slow, unholy inconvenient, uncomfortable, and full of unwashed and often scary transients—the homeless mentally ill, of whom we have a large population, use the buses and lightrail as rolling air-conditioned space. They ride around and around to stay cool (or, in winter, warm) and to come out from under the oleanders for awhile. The lightrail system is a cute novelty but less than useful for commuting and shopping. Though a bus does run up to the college, the city is about to discontinue that line by way of cost-cutting, and it’s not a viable means to get there—even if the buses were comfortable and safe, I wouldn’t think of spending an hour or more to make a ten-minute drive.
Thus there really is no part of the city where a family with two adults, both of whom work, would not genuinely need to own two cars.
So the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index doesn’t tell you much, except that owning a car is expensive and that housing in the aging central part of the city is cheaper than housing in the shiny new suburbs.
Try the maps on a metro area that does have decent public transit, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, and you get a different picture. Housing costs there are so high it doesn’t much matter whether you have to drive. Another highly desirable area, one supposedly designed for sustainability, is Portland, Oregon: again, housing costs in the outlying suburbs appear to be far higher than those in the central city; add the cost of transportation, and few areas are affordable. In New York City, equipped with a large and much-used public transit system, mode of commuting seems to make little difference in affordability. Houston residents, however, pay a high premium for commuting. For people who live around New Orleans, commuting apparently is quite a burden; however, that may be a function of low incomes there. Change the demographic on the maps from “regional typical household” to “national typical household” and the cost of living looks pretty moderate, whether you drive to work or not.
So, I don’t know what all this means. It’s not cheap to drive a car. But on the other hand, riding public transportation isn’t cheap, either: riding buses and trains costs something, and cities with full-service systems have high taxes and a high cost of living. While I’m not pleased about having to pay $110 for gasoline—almost twice what I budgeted for—the cost is far from drastic enough to get me out of my car. Even if it were, there’s really no choice, and so the issue is moot.
How much does it cost you to get around your city? And if you add your typical cost of transportation to your cost of shelter, what proportion of your income does the total consume?