Smart Growth and Affordable Housing

A smart growth approach to housing—compact in nature, green in design and construction, and transit-rich in options—can help both communities and their residents be better stewards of the environment and achieve more affordable, livable communities. The conventional approach to housing—large-lot, dispersed, and suburban—has contributed to the conversion of rural land at a rate three times faster than population has grown,1 as well as a rise in vehicle miles traveled that is also triple that of population growth.2 This approach challenges our ability as a nation to maintain and protect air and water quality, as well as local governments’ ability to finance and maintain the supporting infrastructure of schools, utilities, street networks, and police and fire protection. It also determines the housing and transportation options available to Americans.

As such, the location of housing—and the type of transportation options that it supports—dramatically affects affordability. Dispersed, low-density housing often cannot support viable public transit, biking, or pedestrian options, all but making auto ownership a necessary cost. The true cost of housing, therefore, is the combined cost of housing plus transportation. On average, working families spend nearly 60 percent of household income on the combined costs of housing and transportation. For the working poor, housing location has an even more dramatic impact. Households earning $20,000 to $35,000 that live far from job centers pay 70 percent of their income on housing (33 percent) plus transportation (37 percent). For those living in the central city, housing costs remain unchanged, but transportation drops from 37 to 22 percent.3

Location can also contribute to more stable housing values—critically important for all households whose home is their primary asset. Evidence shows that centrally located homes with a greater range of transportation choices held their value better during the 2007-2008 surge in gas prices than did car-dependent homes in outlying suburban areas.4

The approach used in housing construction also determines the affordability of a home. Green building materials, techniques, and appliances reduce energy consumption by 33 percent5 and water use by 20 percent or more.6 This equates to significant savings in energy expenditures-which now represents as much as 18 percent of household income7 and is likely to continue to rise. Water savings yield lower utility costs at the household level, but also reduce demand, which is vitally important in fast-growing Western areas. In addition, green building approaches contribute to healthier living environments, which reduces the need for medical care for children and critical days of missed work for parents that struggle to make ends meet.

Smart growth approaches support the construction of healthy homes, built with green building techniques and materials, in locations that permit access to a range of transportation choices. They support the construction of a range of housing types to meet the needs of all households, including families, the elderly, and young professionals. They encourage investment and redevelopment in existing communities, providing an opportunity to use existing infrastructure, as well as to revitalize and add amenities in areas that have suffered from disinvestment. Finally, they provide a critical part of our response to climate change, in which buildings and transportation contribute 63 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Even with advancements in fuel and vehicle technology, we will be ill-equipped to turn the tide on climate change without an improved approach to where we live and how we get around.

These approaches deliver benefits for households-better quality of life, more choices, and financial savings-as well as for communities. They are an important part of our approach to protecting the environment.

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