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RSS icon Comments on The True Cost of "Affordable" Suburban Housing


"Downtown" Issaquah?


Posted by Mr. Poe | April 10, 2008 1:46 PM
Blue areas are those where housing and transportation together cost more than 48 percent of median household income

... for whom?

Posted by tsm | April 10, 2008 1:53 PM

This is a really helpful and interesting piece of Slog-reporting. Thanks for putting this up!

Posted by Simac | April 10, 2008 2:01 PM

"Taupe"?? Nope, that's more of a cream, I'd say. Taupe is browner.


Posted by color nazi | April 10, 2008 2:09 PM

The funniest part are the Alien Beavers that re-dammed up the Lake Washington Canal and Locks. (Click on the link and navigate to Fremont, Interbay, and Ballard.) Lolz ahoy!

Posted by mackro mackro | April 10, 2008 2:09 PM

This would be a lot more convincing if they hadn't essentially (and rather arbitrarily) pulled their transportation cost figures out of thin air.

Let us take, for example, the case of an Eastside resident who drives to work on the Eastside. Does their transportation cost methodology deliver an accurate result? No, it doesn't.

Let us take, for another example, my case - I live 3 miles from work, could take the bus, but don't - and I spend less money on a daily driving to work than I would if I took the bus (though I suppose it's about a break even proposition if you figure in the insurance cost of an older car and assume that the time I save is worth nothing). Does their methodology deliver an accurate result? No.

Let us take, for another example, a Southwest Seattle resident who drives to the Eastside for work (because, say, that extra 2 hours a day not spent on a bus is worth something to them). Does their methodology deliver an accurate result? No.

For every complicated question, there is an answer that is simple, obvious, and wrong.

Posted by Mr. X | April 10, 2008 2:11 PM

I wonder how they calculated the cost of transportation. Did they just assume that a monthly Metro pass could get anyone within a particular neighborhood served by public transit anywhere they needed to go? Or did they use actual costs? Did they also use actual transportation costs of the people living in the wealthier suburban neighborhoods (households that can afford luxury cars/SUVs)--and assume that nobody in the 'burbs ever carpools/vanpools/uses a park & ride to get to work or whatever--which would skew the results toward labeling those neighborhoods significantly more expensive than truly necessary?

I mean, you could live on the Plateau and drive a Civic to the P&R every day and spend significantly less than if you had a comparable home in a decent neighborhood within the city limits.

Posted by interesting | April 10, 2008 2:12 PM

@2 - wtf? do you read?

Blue areas are those where housing and transportation together cost more than 48 percent of median household income ($50,733 for a family of 2.5)

That's a national number. Then it looks at each Block Group's housing + transit costs vs. that number and shades it accordingly.

FWIW, HUD puts a family of 2.5 in Seattle that makes 80% of Area Median Income somewhere between $49,000 and $55,000. So it might not be as drastic as the map shows, but the relative differences between two local areas should remain unchanged. Some of the blocks might switch colors though.

Posted by Hey wait | April 10, 2008 2:13 PM

Hey, maybe if you click around you'll find answers to index calculation questions.

There are links to the complete study.

@6: Obviously they have to model it. It's not pulled out of thin air, though.

Posted by Hey wait | April 10, 2008 2:18 PM

@8 - uh, no, you misunderstand. My point is related to @6's: cost of transportation for every suburbanite is hardly uniform. The mean cost of transportation for a Rentonite isn't necessarily as illustrative if the variance on the cost is high, in which case it still could be cheaper for a nontrivial population to live in Renton.

Posted by tsm | April 10, 2008 2:19 PM

The first phase was released in January 2006 and specifically examines the variables that inform Housing + Transportation costs in St Paul/ Minneapolis, MN. The key to this report is the finding that the three primary dependent variables in the household transportation model are auto ownership, auto use and transit ridership and that the two primary independent variables are residential density and household income.

Posted by Hey wait, more answers! | April 10, 2008 2:20 PM

I dunno about this. I live in the middle of San Francisco (expensive!) and when I got rid of my car, I was saving a ton. More than I'd be saving than if I was driving around in Oakland or Berkeley.

But there's a hidden cost to taking transit: it's slow and unpleasant. At least in SF. So if your time is valuable (and whose isn't?) then the hours you spend on the bus make a dent in your savings.

Posted by mattymatt | April 10, 2008 2:20 PM

@5, at least the ship canal is affordable -- I guess they assume you live in an intertube and paddle to work.

Posted by joykiller | April 10, 2008 2:21 PM

While I agree that transportation costs are often not considered in an adequate manner when dealing with costs, I have some real issues with their apparent methodology. Based on my knowledge of two cities on the list that I am quite familiar with and looking at their general description of methodology, my guess is they did not account for housing size. This makes central parts of cities inherently more affordable as there is a much gerater concentration of one bedrooms and studios. If you are talking about affordability for families, mixing in all the studios in the central part of a city is pretty useless.

Posted by nathaniel | April 10, 2008 2:21 PM

@6 "Let us take, for example, the case of an Eastside resident who drives to work on the Eastside. Does their transportation cost methodology deliver an accurate result? No, it doesn't."

Yes it does. See the for a brief description of the methodology. The factor you suggest is included by means of the "job density" and "average time for journey to work" variables, which are computed per-neighborhood.

The Brookings Institution doesn't fuck around.

Posted by nbc | April 10, 2008 2:21 PM

This in part explains the Sierra Club's ongoing opposition to light rail expansion in this region. What would happen if it expands to the eastside is people driving a half hour to reach the parking lots, then taking the trains to downtown (Bellevue or Seattle). That greatly expands the area where McMansion subdivisions in the Cascade foothills would go up. The realtors were the largest contributors to Prop. 1 precisely because it would make what now are exurbs to the east and south a very profitable group of areas to put in large SFD subdivisions. Moreover, it would cause the price of existing closer-in suburban subdivision homes to shoot up because of how the trains allow highly subsidized travels to downtown employers.

The Sierra Club is correct - putting in train lines without first locking down land use limits vastly increases sprawl of the worst sort.

Posted by Rolf | April 10, 2008 2:23 PM

@13 The ship canal is affordable, but Green Lake isn't. Portage cost?

Posted by nbc | April 10, 2008 2:23 PM

@15, I did, and it doesn't - because they still wind up in a "blue" area based on aggregate data that doesn't reflect their individual situation.

Posted by Mr. X | April 10, 2008 2:27 PM

@15, Agreed. The Brooking's Institute doesn't fuck around, it's true.

Posted by Hey wait | April 10, 2008 2:30 PM

#18: These are averages, they didn't paint every single building teal or taupe.

Urban living is cheaper and better in pretty much every measurable way. Does anyone know why people still buy so many houses in the suburbs/exurbs? Is it still plain old white flight?

Posted by poppy | April 10, 2008 2:37 PM

Devil in the details and all but the point that the extra costs of driving further haven't received enough attention is sound.

The financing needs to include the savings and that's a problem since those transportation costs could increase if a new job is taken. It certainly is the case that people have paid too little attention to extra costs of living farther out.

What will the map look like with ST2? Will the new taupe areas around stations make for a better and greener metro area?

Posted by bob | April 10, 2008 2:38 PM

@18 - You've finally done it Mr X. You've officially become more annoying than Will. You spout off about things that you obviously know nothing about - and shout down anyone who questions you. We all get it - you want Seattle to return to the halcyon days before traffic and high prices and all of these hipsters ruining your precious city. We understand how angered you are by all of the change, all of the progress. Get over it. In this specific case, of course there are individual situations - that's what statistical analysis is all about. I suggest you read the report, maybe then you won't look like such an idiot.

Posted by Mr. STFU | April 10, 2008 2:44 PM

@18 - Wait, you want them to break it down to the individual level? It might take a while to complete that study.
In any case, the study only purports to show what areas are generally unaffordable to a person of median income. It's NOT to show what area is affordable to this yuppie suburbanite or that bum in a suburban trailer park.

Basically, if you are a family of 2.5 making the median income, this map shows you where it's relatively more or less expensive (housing and transportation-wise) to live, based on the Block Area measures of certain factors. Factors that you can find here:

Will it apply to me or you or your friend or anyone else you know? NO! But if you average them all out... you might get close to a family of 2.5 and an income of $50k, for which this map does apply to. And that is all urban planners can hope to plan for. Aggregates and averages.

Posted by Hey wait, even more! | April 10, 2008 2:51 PM

@20 - but that's precisely the problem; an average is less meaningful if the variance is high. The average commute (one of the stats mentioned) in Renton could be 30 minutes, but that could represent half the working population spending ten minutes in their car every morning and the other half spending fifty minutes in it. Is it still cheaper to live in the city for the ten-minute commuters?

Posted by tsm | April 10, 2008 2:51 PM

It's not just the cost of housing and transportation.

It's the certainty and supply of housing and transportation.

You could live in certain neighborhoods, where the bus comes once an hour - and have transportation - but it would do you no good.

You could live in neighborhoods where there were houses that cost $500,000 - but the supply was a. limited and b. substandard.

Many factors should be considered, including proximity to schools, walkable neighborhoods, frequency of transit, hours of transit (in Seattle I've lived in places where you only get 30 minute bus service during rush hour, and after 10 forget it), and where it goes.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 10, 2008 2:54 PM

oh, and the existence of the bike lanes on BOTH sides of the ship canal make them even better for commuting and shopping. So, it's not alien beavers, it's kayakers going to work ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 10, 2008 2:56 PM

taupe is just another color for the hood, which is where you want to be anyways.

Posted by superyeadon | April 10, 2008 2:59 PM

The map shows my house in an area of more than 30% of median income. My mortgage is 26% of the local median income. It shows as over 48% including transportation, yet I bicycle to work, walk around the neighborhood, group driving errands to reduce mileage, and have a reliable car with hardly any maintenance costs and no payment. Off the top of my head, I think total costs for housing plus transportation are more like 30% of median.

I am two blocks away from an affordable neighborhood, though, according to the map.

Of course, if I had to pay for the market value of my house at the housing peak some months back, you'd have to more than double the housing portion. So the housing bubble could be distorting these numbers.

In short, while these estimates are true in general, you can't use that generalization to assume that suburbs aren't affordable. Some parts are quite affordable, particularly those in denser neighborhoods. The whole city vs. suburb argument is too simplistic: it's density and diversity vs. sprawl and segregation, and there are examples of both in cities and in suburbs.

Posted by Cascadian | April 10, 2008 3:07 PM

@20, People may live in the suburbs because it is closer to their job. Or for a host of other factors that balances out the costs of transportation in their minds.

Posted by PopTart | April 10, 2008 3:10 PM

I've been trying to convince my MIL of this for YEARS-- she lives deep in the 'burbs and drives into Seattle for work every day. She's one of the many convinced that life in the big city is just too expensive. Sure, she wouldn't be able to afford a tri-level, three bedroom, 2.5 bath house with a big yard and two car garage in the city... But does she NEED all of that? No way. And for what she could sell her house in the 'burbs for, she could EASILY afford a two bedroom cottage or even a townhouse in the CD or Ravenna area. Take into account the money (and time!) that she spends on her hour long commute each day, and living in the city would SAVE her money. A LOT of money... But she just doesn't get it.

Posted by S | April 10, 2008 3:12 PM

The model ignores that the quality of life improvement of having at least one car per household is enormous, much more so than the improvement in housing the same marginal dollars will buy.

The tipping point on car ownership isn't how available and convenient jobs and public transit are - it's how expensive it is to own a car, period. Only when it's prohibitively expensive to own a car at all (pretty much only NYC and SF in the US) that neighborhoods really start changing to make the quality of life without a car competitive.

So I think the model is bunk, or at best half accurate as it will really only measure the prevalence of costs for a *second* car in the household.

Posted by Brad | April 10, 2008 3:19 PM

I just saw that the map used area median household income, and I calculated by using the median household income for my inner suburb. That still works out to 30.7% housing and about 37.8% housing plus transportation.

But that's just it, people in suburbs tend to make more money on average than people for the area as a whole. If you calculated per house affordability, it would be higher on actual average than the "area average" would suggest. Suburbs are affordable for the more affluent population that lives there, and that's historically the point--they're a place for those with more money to live where they're not as close to people without as much money. The same people buying comparable houses in the city would have to spend even more proportionally, so individually they are spending less on housing despite what the average says.

But again, that gets back to issues of economic (and often ethnic) segregation, not simply cities vs. suburbs. To improve affordability, everyone needs to drive less regardless of where they live. That means expanding transit options and the availability of jobs closer to home--in suburbs as well as cities.

Posted by Cascadian | April 10, 2008 3:20 PM

You can show me all the maps and data you want telling me that it's affordable in urban areas, but it simply does not compute. I earn 70k/yr working in downtown. After 401k, ira, taxes, etc I am left with about 40k. I just went to Windermere's property point and zoomed in on an area of the map that is "affordable", just east of seattle central community college -- the cheapest 1bed 1ba condo is 300k, and anything more than 1bed starts at 380k. HOA fees vary wildly, but my average number-from-my-cornhole guesstimate is $250 (I actually pay 345 right now, but it's poorly managed and I expect we're an outlier). Assuming I have 15k saved up to use for a 5% down payment, get a mtg for 80% @ 6.5% and a purchase money 2nd mtg for 15% @ 7.5% to avoid pma (average credit rating) I'm at 1850/mo, plus the 250 hoa, = 2100/mo (25,200 per year). That's 63% of my take-home pay. For the cheapest 1bed 1ba condo in the area. This is NOT affordable.

Posted by show me more | April 10, 2008 3:44 PM

Well, there's still the global warming impact of living in the suburbs to consider, Cascadian, which makes the whole decision point shift dramatically even further.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 10, 2008 3:44 PM

Your maps don't go out far enough. The region, and the commuter zone, is twice as large as you think it is. Get to Arlington in the north, Orting in the south, and we'll see. Seriously: that's where the housebuilding action is.

Posted by Fnarf | April 10, 2008 3:45 PM

@30 Who are you to determine what she NEEDS? Hell to her maybe it is more important that she CHOOSES not to live near the crime, riff raff, aggravation, and "urban attitude" that is so prevalent in the taupe colored "hood".

@32 Cascadian has most of the logic nailed. The only thing I would add to you folks who simply don't get why folks want to live in the 'burbs. Call me any name in the book you'd like, but I prefer living out in the 'burbs because statistically speaking I'm less likely to be the victim of non familial random agressive crime. There IS safety in the suburbs. With less people in my neighborhood, I know who my neighbors are, what their kids look like, who should and more importantly who shouldn't be walking around our neighborhood late at night, etc etc.. you get my point.

No amount of social manipulation thru zoning laws, forced density etc will get me to adjust or change my mind.

Why can't you urban freaks figure that out?

Posted by You can have your Hood | April 10, 2008 3:51 PM

@33 - buy a townhouse or condo - you'll get more than a 1BR/BA.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 10, 2008 3:51 PM


Whatever, dude. If they had used actual Census or State Economic Forecasting data I would have found the whole exercise a lot more convincing.

I do sure love pissing true believers off, though...

Posted by Mr. X | April 10, 2008 3:57 PM

@32 Cascadian is right, except for his comment about expanded transportation.. unless he means high speed light rail in from further out in the suburbs to the city.

That is the kind of expansion I want. Give me a way to live further away from the urban crime and density. I want to live with less people around. I grew up with peace and quiet compared to traffic noise, honking horns, sirens, gunshots etc.

I don't want expanded subsidized cheap bus service expanded. If it is too cheap, it allows the riff raff who live cheap, act cheap, are cheap to co-intermingle with those of us who are more affluent and want ethnic and economic seperation from the have nots. I don't want THAT kind of diversity sorry. I shouldn't be required to endure it either under the guise of the "melting pot" of society.

Sorry. Don't want to subscribe. Next option please.

Posted by No Expanded Transportation | April 10, 2008 4:04 PM

Real life example here, although it has to do with renting. Live on Capitol Hill, commute to downtown Bellevue everyday. I drive. The transportation costs do not outweigh the increase in rent that I would incur if I moved to downtown Bellevue. I basically come out about 150-200 dollars ahead every month.
The fact remains though that "most" families do not want to raise their kids in an apt or condo building and housing prices are unnafordable in the city proper. Just go to Redfin and actually try to find a listing under 150,000,( 3x the income of 50,733 listed in the study or what used to pass for sane lending standards) in the city and see what you come up with. If there are any, they are tiny 400-500 square foot condos. Good for single people, yes. Not so good for a family of 3 or 4.
The thing you might worry about in the near future though is the long term possiblity of skyrocketing rents in the city core due to spiralling energy costs. As these get higher, city core prices should appreciate over time as the people who can afford to live the closest move to deal with these high energy costs. If you think gentrification is bad now, you haven't seen anything yet.:)

Posted by Brian in Seattle | April 10, 2008 4:12 PM

I'm sure this works in the abstract but it doesn't SEEM to take into account the huge amount of reverse commuting in Seattle (city >> suburbs).

I love being able to walk to the grocery store. Others enjoy having a yard. "High Density" living may be more eco-friendly but I don't think we have the right to tell people where to live.

We can levy tolls for road use and tax gasoline so people are paying for their resource usage but anything beyond that would be much too coercive.

Posted by Dawgson | April 10, 2008 4:13 PM

This model also ignores regional characteristics. Seattle - why live here if you don't want to hike, climb, camp, paddle, ski, see a show at the Gorge, visit wine country or whatever?

If you're just into the city life to be had without a car, you'd live in NYC, SF, Chicago, Boston, D.C., Miami, Toronto, Vancouver...

People won't ever stop owing at least one car per household here. It makes no sense to model affordability as if they will, and after the fixed cost hit, per-mile marginal costs of driving are cheaper than any alternative but walking or biking, which is also impractical to expect too much of in a place where it rains all the time.

Posted by Brad | April 10, 2008 4:18 PM

Looking at the maps for other cities, A family of " 2.68" should be able to afford transportation and housing in Manhattan on an income of $50,795.

That's ludicrous. My partner and I couldn't make ends meet in Brooklyn at almost twice that amount (and with .68 less residents).

This is clearly biased and using some highly spurious facts and figures.

Posted by Dawgson | April 10, 2008 4:21 PM


Actually read the post you dullard.

Posted by Captain Lyle | April 10, 2008 4:38 PM

Erica, this is an awesome find.

Posted by Mike O'Neill | April 10, 2008 5:13 PM

The point isn't so complicated. Mostly the argument is about whether people that work in Seattle can afford to live here. Of course, if you work in Marysville, you probably want to live near there and it would be cheaper BOTH for housing and transportation. But the study shows that it isn't necessarily less expensive to commute from the burbs to the city.

#33 - can you find something out of town considering your extra transportation costs that is more affordable? BTW there are many in-city units that are much less expensive than the $300,000 one you single in on. How much do you put into the 401K and how much more take home would you have with the bigger deductions?

Posted by bob | April 10, 2008 5:13 PM

All such stat.s need to be tested against the real world. However even in the realm of stats this model is missing come compelling factors. A family with 2.5 children needs a school system for the children to attend. Preferably one where there is no need for metal detectors and the students are able to achieve relatively good scores (there should at least be a bell curve, where some children are above average). Another major factor that is harder to get ahold of data for is the health consequences of living in one area or another. I can't speak for your town but parts of NYC have particularly high asthma rates. Suprisingly, parts of Long Island have cancer clusters. Crime and other quality of life issues are likely to be factors as well. If you are going to start adding things in you have to make a big list and weight the different factors explicitly.

Posted by LMSW | April 10, 2008 5:15 PM

Shorter Erica Barnett:

People who live in suburbs are stupid and can't add or subtract (and forget multiply & divide.)

Posted by David Sucher | April 10, 2008 8:06 PM

The only problem is that houses in the suburbs tend to be bigger. Sure one can live in a capital hill condo for something approaching affordable, but a house of any size, hardly. A three bedroom house in Seattle is 400k minimum. A three bedroom house in Burien, 250k or less. Thats about 9000 a year in interest alone. At 20 MPG and gas at 3.50 a gallon you are looking at about 5000 extra miles per year as a threshold for affordability tilting. Burien is 10 miles from Seattle. People work about 250 days a year so you are looking at about 2500 miles or half the 5000 needed. And that is being pretty generous with housing prices in Seattle.

Yeah if you look at places like Samammish were people choose a 5000 sq/ft house over a 2000 sq/ft one in the city, I can see her point, but most people live in places like Burien or Federal Way becasue that is the only place they can afford a house big enough for their family. We're not talking huge, but big enough for 2 kids to have bedrooms and perhaps an extra bathroom.

Posted by Giffy | April 10, 2008 8:23 PM

Note, folks, that even though some may work within their neighborhoods or close to it, most still commute a considerable distance to work. It's just that there isn't the transit system in the suburbs that there is in the city, and so those people in the suburbs must drive from A to B, whereas those in the city can use transit or walk. I don't need a car in Seattle to get around. If I lived in Auburn, though, I would need one... unless I didn't mind living like a hermit, only working 9 to 5 jobs and getting up at 5-6 every morning and spending 2 hours each way getting to and from work.

So no, the models aren't wrong on average. In fact, this is one of ECB's better finds. The cost of transport in the suburbs is higher, simply because you MUST have a car to have a life there. You don't need one in the city.

Posted by Gomez | April 10, 2008 11:39 PM

We should stop subsidizing autosprawl. The quickest way is free public transit.


Posted by fpteditors | April 11, 2008 5:44 AM

The fastest way is zoning and tolls.

Once again the point is more important than the detail. If transportation costs to a house are not called out on the mortgage application, they should be.

A sixty mile commute could easily add $500 a month in car costs - if it is an "extra" car it could add $750 or more. Every $500 could add $90,000 of house buying power.

Posted by bob | April 11, 2008 7:05 AM

Cities sprawl because it's cheap to build freeways through low density areas, and because one agency is typically responsible for highway development.

One other reason why people prefer suburbs as well is not transportation at all, it's schools. Given a choice between Seattle or Lake Washington schools, where would you send your kids?

Also: so many people in, oh, North Capitol Hill and Madison Valley live there because of easy access to 520 (and the 545 bus)--which makes it "easy" to scoot across the lake for those who want the rich Eastside jobs. Along the 520 corridor, Seattle exports workers. And I knew that if I lived in Seattle, I'd welcome tolls (though I don't like to admit that they would, indeed, keep poorer people away.)

Posted by SD Dan | April 11, 2008 8:54 AM

Three things: 1) this is based on the 2000 Census. Is it just me, or does it seem like doing something like this study needs to have data that is more recent than 8 years ago? I've lived in Seattle for 9 years, and things have certainly changed a lot demographically and housing-wise in that time. I realize getting census-type info in the middle of a cycle is difficult, but I'd trust this analysis much more if this was coming out one or two years after the census occurred. 2) Also, I wonder if 48% of median income has historically been considered affordable, or if this has shifted over time. 3) Although this is only about housing & transportation costs, housing affordability is impacted by things like disparities in how cost-of-living (which has increased at about a third in Seattle over the last 10 years) should be accounted for somehow. You just can't divorce housing from all other expenses in such ways.

Posted by bookworm | April 11, 2008 1:23 PM

@20: Why do people (generally families) live in suburbs? Good public schools. Safety. Recreational facilities (soccer fields, baseball fields, etc.). Jobs (Microsoft, Boeing, Costco, etc.).

I live in the city, but I'm not so closed-minded that I can't see the attraction for others.

Posted by tomcat98109 | April 11, 2008 1:53 PM

Re @36, While that seems to be common sense, it's just plain factually incorrect.

In many places, there is much more crime in the suburbs, where homes are farther apart, and streetlights are either non-existent or the only light around. Crimes seem to occur more frequently in the city because there are far more people.

It's also far less healthy for one's family to live in the suburbs. Some places have no sidewalks, or not enough safe light to walk at night. And houses are built far away from shops and markets. They are set up to force people to drive everywhere.

Posted by Mickymse | April 11, 2008 6:19 PM

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