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Are Compact Cities More Affordable?

May 30, 2016

by Fanis Grammenos : newgeography – excerpt – (charts)

Housing affordability has been a tenacious and intractable urban problem for as long as stats have been kept. Several cities recently declared it a crisis. But what kind of problem is it? Opinions vary widely. An economic problem, or a social one? A land resource issue? Or, as traded wisdom would have it, the result of reliance on the wrong urban form? Proposed solutions vary accordingly. Now, new evidence rules out one potential source of unaffordable housing: clearly, it is not an urban form problem. The widely-believed theory that a city’s lack of affordable housing can be fixed with increased compactness — when combined with public transit — is apparently wrong.

In a recent article we questioned a publicized correlation between a compactness index level (i.e., urban form) and housing affordability. The argument supporting compactness is that it enables the use of public transit and active mobility modes, which reduce transport expenses sufficiently to eclipse the higher cost of housing prevalent in compact districts. We challenged that assumption, and found that data from eighteen US regional metro regions showed no such effect. Even if it were at all present, it would not be sufficiently pronounced to be an effective solution. Those conclusions were based on a regional look at the problem.

While the aggregate regional data undermined the urban form theory of affordability, what do sub-regional level data show? At this finer level, could the housing-plus-transportation burden work to the advantage of households? To answer this question, we used data from 18 districts of the Metro Vancouver (BC) region. In this case, the official data exclude certain types of households — a critical limitation. But, given that such disaggregated data are rare, an effort at deciphering their meaning is warranted.

The two subject groups were Working Homeowners and Working Renters. First, we looked at whether or not the working homeowners could find accommodation that suited their income without stretching themselves thin…

Overall, the data shows that for working homeowners there are no locations in the Metro Vancouver Region, whether urban, suburban or exurban, that push housing costs or the combined costs of housing and transportation above the affordability threshold. Urban form is not affecting budgets in these households.

For working renters, rents are affordable in 16 of the 18 districts, whether urban, suburban or exurban. However, when transportation costs are added to their housing costs, the new sum puts them in financial stress, even in districts served by rapid rail transit.

This sub-regional, limited analysis confirms the findings of our earlier regional look: compactness and access to transit do not produce the affordability benefits that have been claimed. The compact urban form does not equal more affordable living, particularly for the less affluent.

Fanis Grammenos heads Urban Pattern Associates (UPA), a planning consultancy. UPA researches and promotes sustainable planning practices including the implementation of the Fused Grid, a new urban network model. He is a regular columnist for the Canadian Home Builder magazine, and author of Remaking the City Street Grid: A model for urban and suburban development. Reach him at fanis.grammenos at gmail.com... (more)

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