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Urban affordability may be an optical illusion

Little houses little cars, and living intown are all elements in an affordable lifestyle. But how many people really want to live that way?

The Center for Neighborhood Technology, which won a MacArthur Award last year (so it must be filled with geniuses) has a new tool out that tries to pinpoint real housing affordability.

The Housing + Transportation Index maps real estate prices and driving costs to incomes and city maps, delivering a visual representation of where the real bargains are.

The claim is that if housing and transportation costs you less than 45% of your income you're doing OK, while if they cost more you have trouble.

This is illustrated by some fact sheets on major cities (here's the one on Houston) which generally show that the idea of "drive until you qualify" is self-defeating.

In the Houston example, living inside the Loop is cheaper than living in Katy, even though mortgages cost more, because suburbanites spend all their money on I-10.

The aim can be seen in this detailed report on San Antonio, which advocates urban planning based on reduced commuting, as found inside I-410.

I know both these cities and Houston has a much more active inner city "urban homesteader" movement than San Antonio, in part because roads in the San Antonio area are still wide enough that commuting isn't too much of a hassle.

But I also saw the limits of this approach looking at my own hometown of Atlanta.

The index is heavily influenced by real estate prices, which are a function of both income and housing stock. Both are also influenced by past racial patterns.

Take the neighborhood where I live (above). I'm in the yellow block right below the white area, which happens to be a MARTA rail station no one lives at. For decades that rail line was also the color line. Notice that it's yellow. According to CNT me and my neighbors pay 30% of our income for housing and transportation, a real bargain.

But the color line moved south this decade. My new white neighbors generally don't buy the 800-square foot bungalows their black neighbors are moving out of. Instead they renovate and expand them first, into 2,400 square foot, new-looking mansion-like structures.

Such new homes in either Kirkwood (lower left) or Oakhurst (lower right) cost just what homes north of the tracks cost. Since the index is based on average incomes and average values, it's not fully reflected in what you see.

Then notice the living patterns of these new neighbors. Many drive minivans, SUVs, and large pick-ups with bad gas mileage. In this they're much like the folks north of the tracks.

Being close to town, in other words, is no guarantee of affordability.

Affordability is more of a lifestyle choice, assuming it's a choice at all and your income isn't much below the average, as it is for most of my long-time neighbors.

If you buy a small home in my area and commute on MARTA, you can get by easily with one small car. Most people choose not to do that. They may feel righteous, living intown, but these numbers show they drive just like suburbanites, so their cost of living is just like those of suburbanites.

Little houses little cars, and living intown are all elements in an affordable lifestyle. But how many people really want to live that way?

Based on my experience not as many as CNT or its maps think.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com