Expanding Options, Expanding Opportunity

By Dave Van Hattum, Senior Policy Advocate

Housing and transportation, in that order, are typically a family’s largest expenditures. In both cases—because families and incomes vary substantially—one size, one situation does not fit all. Ideally, if we plan with current and future residents in mind, a wide range of housing options—by price and by type—will be readily available in the Twin Cities region: condos, townhomes, apartments, and single-family rental and owner-occupied homes. And travel from this varied housing to key destinations will be practical with a wide range of affordable transportation options—transit, biking, and walking—in addition to the choice of driving.

Unfortunately, we know that is not yet the case. Today, only 25 percent of households in the Twin Cities have access to convenient transit (meaning: service at least every 30 minutes, 6 days a week). This leaves too many residents stranded without realistic options or dependent on driving—and at the mercy of rising gasoline prices. Housing that is affordable to a day care provider, construction worker, or retiree can be hard to find, particularly in locations close to entry-level jobs and in locations with convenient transit.

Three efforts that can expand options and opportunity going forward:

  1. Greater consumer awareness about the interplay of housing and transportation costs
  2. Building new units or preserving existing units of affordable housing. This is impacted both by insuring an adequate inventory of affordably priced housing and by locating, to a higher degree, new housing in locations with enough transit service to make reduced car ownership (or reduced car travel) possible.
  3. Increasing transit service (at the regional level) and designs for walking and biking (at the neighborhood level).

Aeon-pull-quote_WEBReducing car and driving costs makes housing more affordable.  People looking for housing should assess the transportation costs associated with a particular neighborhood, just as they assess the anticipated energy bills of a future home.  And transportation costs can vary substantially (see the CNT Farmington and Longfellow case study (PDF)). A neighborhood with transit options that makes it possible for a family or individual to own one less car translates into $8,000 per year in savings and the ability to afford a $100,000 mortgage, a huge boost toward affordable housing. TLC will be creating a transportation literacy training program to assist social service providers and others in understanding the cost and availability of transportation options in the region. (More on that soon.)

More housing options, more transit-oriented housing. The current supply of housing in locations well served by transit is set, but the future supply is not.  Supply can increase in two ways: more housing and more transit.  More housing means preserving current affordable housing and building more by encouraging developers to build upward (i.e. more density) in locations well served by transit not outward in locations not well served by or suited to transit.


Some developers have already responded to increased demand for affordable housing near transit. Residents of the Episcopal Homes Seabury development in Saint Paul are served by buses on University Avenue and will also have easy access to the Central Corridor light rail line when it opens in 2014.

We know the region’s population is expected to grow substantially over the next several decades. We know the market for housing has changed dramatically—with far greater demand for attached and rental units vs. single-family, owner-occupied units. The market for housing in walkable communities close to transit is also hugely under supplied. A survey by the Met Council estimates that the market for transit is three times the current number of riders.[i] And a national survey found that a large majority of Millennials (the largest home buying demographic) want to live in walkable urban settings.[ii]

But we can’t simply trust that new housing will serve these changing consumer preferences for housing type and location. Planning for the future is essential. The Metropolitan Council is engaging more deeply in housing issues than previous Councils and will produce a housing plan by the end of next year. The Met Council is also currently crafting Thrive MSP 2040, the region’s land use plan and foundation for the region’s transportation, sewer, and open space/parks plans. Thrive MSP, through the adoption of a preferred policy scenario for future growth, can have a big impact on where and how future housing is built.  Thrive MSP, the regional transportation and housing plans, and the local comprehensive plans they inform, can and should all work seamlessly to expand affordable housing and transportation options.

More transit and better designed communities. We can put more homes where the current transit is, but we also need to greatly expand the footprint of convenient transit.  Many seniors want to age in place and many families, for a variety of reasons, are happily wedded to their community. Consequently, the transit system needs to grow outward especially where current population density would support ridership, including in the Southwest and Bottineau corridors.  It also needs to grow qualitatively by providing faster routes in key urban corridors through investment in rapid bus lines. Finally, a large percentage of daily trips are under 3 miles, but are still made by car.  Better street and community design can make biking and walking the convenient choice for more of these trips.

Understanding the intersection of housing and transportation, and expanding options for both, is key to planning for a better future. We look forward to further examining this topic in future blogs.

[i] 2007 Metro Residents Survey, Met Council, February 2008