Few neighborhoods affordable when commuting costs added

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Most affordable housing isn’t truly affordable because of high costs of transportation, according to a recent study by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

The cost of commuting to work or school from Michigan’s affordable neighborhoods equals or exceeds the cost of housing for low- to moderate-income households, according to the study.

Housing and transportation expenses together make up about half of an average Michigan household’s budget, eating up too much of the family income to be considered affordable, according to federal standards. 

“Neglecting transportation needs of households when fashioning housing policy solutions may reduce the effectiveness of those policies,” according to the study.

Once private transportation costs that come with car use are added to the neighborhood’s cost of living, only 15% of Michigan’s affordable housing fits the federal definition of affordable housing, the study said. 

Residents in counties such as Muskegon, Saginaw and Genesee spend more than half of their budget on housing and transportation on average, according to the National Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, created by the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.

The Citizens Research Council study argues that investments in housing developments near public transportation could reduce the cost of living.

Rayman Mohamed, a professor at Wayne State University with expertise in urban planning and transportation, said part of the reason public transportation is not as prevalent in Michigan as in some other states is because it’s not popular. 

Mohamed said he is confused about why public support for public transit isn’t there, and he doesn’t know why.

“Michigan is no exception to the nationwide preference for private property and the popularity of cars,” Mohamed said. 

Despite gas price spikes in 2006, Mohamed said trends in public transportation’s popularity went up only for a short time, but then seemed to flatline. People continued to buy cars and local planners continued zoning neighborhoods to fit the needs of car owners. 

Mohamed said most local planners would ideally love to plan for greater use of public transfit, but the economic resources and lack of popularity don’t line up with what residents would need to curb the higher car-related costs. 

Most public transportation is “inadequate at best,” or even nonexistent, a problem ranging from cities to suburbs, Mohamed said.

Frequent and reliable bus service in low-cost neighborhoods would increasingly lower the overall cost of living, Mohamed said.

Figuring out what is possible to plan for is half of the struggle, said Richard Murphy, the program manager for the Michigan Municipal League that represents city and village officials.

In rural areas there would not be enough need for public transit in a concentrated area, Murphy said.

But there is in urban and suburban communities in Metro Detroit, he said.

“It is about figuring out what is possible, what’s not possible, such as how much of someone’s daily life can be served by walking your kids to school or (using) dial-a-ride (services) to get to a doctor’s appointment, versus what might look more like a bus line or a train line at some point,” Murphy said. 

Murphy said that zoning boards want to find what the local “travel corridors” are and what locations would have the most bus riders.

Murphy identified one such area as East Lansing and Lansing where the Capital Area Transportation Authority has added more destinations to make bus transit more effective.

In addition, the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor area reduced its parking zones to push individuals to use public transportation instead of cars in downtown areas, he said. 

The average household in Ann Arbor and Lansing spends around 45% of its budget on housing and transportation costs. 

Murphy also said Metro Detroit communities such as Ferndale, Oak Park and Hazel Park have worked to make safe biking and walking networks and have increased the frequency of bus routes.

“It is about thinking about how do you scale back the zoning requirements that say you must build in a car-dependent way and how do you permit or enable building patterns that allow for more human activity,” Murphy said.

Chad Benson, the rental development director for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, said there is a growing demand from people wanting to rent where public transportation exists.

“We’re looking to select those deals for funding,”Benson said of affordable housing. “One of them is the proximity to transportation.”

“Typically, what we’re looking for is where the housing development will be located. If it’s in an urban area, we want it within a quarter mile of a public transportation stop. If it’s in a rural area, we want it to be within a half a mile of public transportation,” he said.

Benson pointed out a new idea from the Bay Area Transportation Authority that would create affordable housing in the economic center of the Traverse City area with public transportation. It is part of a $100 million project called “Center of it All” in Garfield Township.

The project’s goals include improving the health of the residents served, meeting the growing need for workforce housing and relieving traffic congestion in job centers like downtown Traverse City.

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