Even when exurban housing remains affordable in booming American metros, the result is to push poorer people into longer and more expensive commutes. In this post we linked to the evidence that such commutes have adverse effects on upward mobility. Something bad happens to children whose parents need to travel long distances every day.
Now, John Renne (Florida Atlantic University) and Shima Hamidi (University of Texas) have examined a similar question. (Hat tip: Will Baird.) How high are the commuting costs faced by the recipients of federal housing subsidies? As rents have increased in urban centers, subsidy recipients increasingly live in the far suburbs. In theory, that should drive up their commuting costs. The question is: by how much?
Context: The federal government (reasonable if somewhat arbitrarily) defines commuting affordability as 15% of their household income. That would be around $7,500 a year for the median American household. In a poor urban county, like the Bronx, that would be about $400 per month for the median household. Not coincidentally, the median income in the Bronx is just a hair under the Section 8 income limit for a family of four. Most subsidized households are considerably poorer, however, with an average market income around $14,000 per year. For them, the affordability limit would be around $170 per month. That would get you an unlimited pass on the New York subway or the D.C. buses. It isn’t quite enough to get you an unlimited pass on the D.C. metro, but it could get you a pass that would allow you take unlimited trips inside the District proper.
Results: 44% of the households in the sample faced commuting costs that exceeded 15% of their income. In smaller southern metros, none of the Section 8 properties had reasonable commuting costs. They also found, however, that in expensive but transit-served metros like the Bay Area, 97% of the properties were affordable.
So that might bring a sigh of relief. The problem is the urban structure of America’s small stagnant metros, not rising costs in its big vibrant ones. Except there is a catch. In their words, “Section 8 Multifamily Programs are relatively small and thus dwarfed by tenant-based vouchers and low-income housing tax credits. In addition, these programs are mostly in preservation and operation mode, no longer subsidizing new construction/substantial rehabilitation.”
In other words, their data comes from existing properties that have been in the Section 8 program for a while. It does not come from families receiving vouchers that they can use anywhere. In places like San Francisco and New York, these properties have been in the system for a while. The evidence does not tell you how badly the situation may be worsening.
But it is interesting.