Is affordable housing in the suburbs really affordable?

A recent article in The Atlantic about affordable housing in exclusive Chicago suburbs such as Glenview, started me thinking about the efficacy of affordable housing in the suburbs (or, rather, gave me an excuse to share my thoughts about it here, because housing in the suburbs is never far from my mind). The article praises the Regional Housing Initiative (RHI), which was started in 2002 as a collaboration between the housing authorities in Chicago, Cook County and Lake County as a way to bring housing into neighborhoods that, by virtue of location, good schools and safe neighborhoods, would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. The housing authorities pool HUD funds for Section 8 housing as a way to bridge the gap between Chicago (which has lots of money but little available real estate for affordable housing in good neighborhoods) and the suburbs (which have less money but lots of available land). Expensive-looking townhomes are erected and filled with low-income people from the city looking to expand their opportunities.

This practice is a very good thing. It has helped house more than 2,000 families since its inception. It provides children with good schools and increases their chances of achieving higher education and of finding viable employment. It teaches people in suburbs that not every collection of federally subsidized housing is Cabrini-Greene. It has bridged the gap between city and suburb.

Except when it comes to transportation. Denise Boyd, who lives in the affordable complex Greenleaf Manor in Glenview, told The Atlantic that she can no longer go to her city church because the commute is too long. Her friends do not come visit her because their is no public transit. The schools are good, and she is happy for the opportunities her children now have, but she is isolated from her former community.

I plugged the address into the H+T Index created by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), which rates blocks based on factors such as proximity to transportation and employment. Greenleaf Manor has a Transportation Connectivity Index of 4 out of 100. This measurement is found by taking the number of bus routes and train stations within walking distance of an addresses block group, and scaling for frequency of service. CNT defines walking distance as 1/2 mile, approximately ten minutes. The only transportation near these affordable units, occupied by people whose low-incomes cannot cover the cost of rent and for whom cars are just another drain on limited resources, is a bus that runs along a 17 mile stretch of Milwaukee Road, between the Westfield Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills and the Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles. While there are arguably plenty of jobs along this stretch of road, the bus stops running during the week at approximately 9:30 pm going southbound and 10:30pm going northbound, and between 7 and 7:30 pm in both directions on Saturday. There is no Sunday schedule. For those working in the service industry (and presumably many residents of Greenleaf Manor do), this schedule is unmanageable given retail and restaurant hours. My point is, life without a car in a nice suburb like Glenview is impossible. And when you factor in the cost of gas, maintenance and insurance, the affordability provided by a housing voucher may not be enough to make ends meet.

Kyle Smith at CNT and Daniel Hertz at City Observatory both wrote compelling articles recently on the need to include other factors (such as the cost of transportation) when determining the affordability of units and locations. Both call for a more wholistic view of the housing affordability paradigm. The Glenview case listed above is just one example of how the lack of transit can impact voucher-holding families. Affordable housing in safe suburbs is wonderful but is impossible to sustain if transportation is not included in the development process.


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