housing plus transportation affordable

I have mentioned the concept of H+T, housing plus transportation, in previous posts, but not focused on it. H+T is a concept developed by Congress for a New Urbanism’s Center for Neighborhood Technology. The Affordability Index concept is explained as:

“The H+T® Index provides a more complete measure of affordability.

By taking into account the cost of housing as well as the cost of transportation, H+T provides a more comprehensive understanding of the affordability of place.

Dividing these costs by the representative income illustrates the cost burden of housing and transportation expenses placed on a typical household.

While housing alone is traditionally deemed affordable when consuming no more than 30% of income, the H+T Index incorporates transportation costs—usually a household’s second-largest expense—to show that location-efficient places can be more livable and affordable.”

The traditional way of finding ‘affordable’ housing, for those able to, is to ‘drive until you qualify’. The further away from the core city, the less expensive housing becomes, because the cost of land is lower, and the level of subsidy for development is higher. Of course there are exceptions – think Granite Bay, the most expensive and highest income area in the region. But with lower housing costs come higher transportation costs. In fact, it is almost an inverse relationship. The longer travel distances and the lack of choice of modes – driving becomes the only choice – eat up savings from less expensive housing.

For Sacramento County, the map of H+T is below. The fact sheet for Sacramento County is here. In general, the affordable areas (light color) are downtown, Stockton Blvd (with SacRT bus route 51), Interstate 80 east (with SacRT light rail Blue Line and bus route 1). Overall for the county, 52% of income is spent on housing plus transportation, with 29% being housing and 23% being transportation. That is a remarkably high transportation component. Why? Because Sacramento County is so spread our, vast areas of low density housing, and undeveloped land (that used to be agricultural land) that has been leapfrogged over by developers seeking even less expensive land to develop. If time allows, I will use the H+T data to overlay with the transit system and pin down better the relationship between transit and transportation costs. But for now, you can clearly see there is a relationship.

Why is H+T so important, at this point in time? Because the proposed transportation sales tax for Sacramento County, Measure A, focuses mostly on the old model of transportation, where freeways and arterials provide fast travel to far flung developments. The banner project in the measure is the Capital Southeast Connector, which comes nowhere close to the capital, in fact avoids the city of Sacramento and will provide no benefit to the city. See all the high transportation cost areas, the darker blue? The measure envisions more and more of those, places where the housing might be relatively affordable, but transportation costs are back-breaking. The measure wants to build more freeways and interchanges, expand freeways, widen roadways, and ease travel along major arterials. It is not interested in sidewalks and bicycle facilities that would support more housing in the already transportation affordable areas. The complete streets are all along major arterials, the dangerous, busy, noisy, pollution generating roadways that are not where affordable housing should be.

The measure provides some funding for transit, but significantly less than the existing Measure A, less than the 2016 Measure B which failed at the ballot box, less than the draft 2020 Measure which was withdrawn in part due to the pandemic. It also sees the function of transit as mitigating motor vehicle capacity expansion projects, not as a valid mode of travel.

Infill housing can be affordable, if priced correctly. Yes, under current housing cost inflation, almost nothing anywhere is affordable, but in concept infill can be affordable. Greenfield development can never be affordable because the transportation component of H+T will always be too high in greenfield areas.

Sacramento County and the cities in the county are obligated by state law, under the RHNA (regional housing needs assessment) process, to zone sufficient areas for housing at many income levels (very low, low, moderate, above moderate). The proposed measure, because it sucks up nearly all transportation funding into areas of moderate and above moderate housing, pretty much ensures that the governments will not be able to meet their very low and low obligations.