Housing prices vs. costly commutes

A public transit bus passes a gas station advertising prices well above the $3 per gallon mark earlier this year..

KAI RYSSDAL: Life's all about trade-offs. No matter what anybody says, most of us really *can't have it all. Time and money tend to force the choices. When it comes to deciding where to live, would you choose a cheaper house *if you knew you'd have to pay more to get to work? Marketplace's Amy Scott tells us a new study suggests that's exactly the choice most low-income families have to make.


AMY SCOTT: Let's say a lower-income family moves from a pricey city to the suburbs. Chances are they'd find a cheaper house. But they'd spend the savings on transportation. The nonprofit Center for Housing Policy looked at 28 metropolitan areas around the country. The center's Barbara Lipman says cheaper housing usually means a longer commute.
BARBARA LIPMAN: Once you start making a one-way commute of greater than about twelve miles, you start running into the problem where your transportation costs can outweigh any savings that you may have accumulated by living in neighborhoods where you were able to afford cheaper housing.

The so-called spatial mismatch between jobs and affordable housing is well-documented. Recent census data show that of the 20 fastest growing counties, most are at least 30 miles from the nearest business center. Michael Stoll teaches public policy at UCLA. He says not only do low-income families tend to live farther from work. They also pay more for car insurance because of crime in poor neighborhoods.

MICHAEL STOLL: And that significantly affects the degree to which they can own their own cars and maintain them. Car loans are also more expensive for poor people because of higher credit risks. And maintaining a car tends to be very expensive as it is, but because poor people have to afford older cars they're much more expensive to maintain.

Stoll and the authors of today's study say governments should promote car sharing, or even subsidize car ownership, and encourage affordable housing near jobs or public transportation.

In New York, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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