Can Fighting Sprawl Broaden Affordable Housing’s Constituency?

A hot housing market in Asheville, North Carolina, has driven residents away from the core of its metropolitan area and into sprawl communities in search of affordable homes. In May 2010, a team of researchers at the Center for Urban and Regional Studies of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill released a report, sponsored by the North Carolina Association of CDCs and Mountain Housing Opportunities, that measures some of the environmental effects of this quest for affordability. It makes the case that anyone concerned about sprawl and air quality should support building affordable housing for low- and moderate-wage workers in Asheville’s core.

A Long Way From Home: The Impacts of a Limited Supply of Workforce Housing in the Asheville Metropolitan Area, by William M. Rohe, et al., describes Asheville’s increase in low- and moderate-income workers, limited multifamily housing options, and soaring prices for both ownership and rental housing. “Within the $20,000 to $34,999 income group, the percentage of rent-burdened families in both Buncombe County and the rest of the MSA jumped from under 30% to over 50% between 2000 and 2007,” they write. They found that workers who have been priced out of Asheville now seek housing in the neighboring Haywood, Henderson, and Madison counties.

This translates into longer commutes. According to the report, Buncombe County hosts about 54 percent of the MSA’s housing, but it has 67 percent of the jobs. Between 2000 and 2007, the amount of people in the other three counties who reported working in their county of residence declined to 67 percent, down from 72 percent. As of 2006, only 53 percent of those who work within a seven-mile ring around downtown Asheville and earn less than $48,000 live within the city.

But more would want to if they could afford it: The authors asked people with commutes of more than 15 miles if they would be willing to move closer to work if they could. Of households earning up to 110 percent of AMI ($60,000), 62 percent said they would consider moving closer to work. The report estimates that by doing so, they would save about $4600/year in commuting costs, and 159-250 hours of their time.

The report’s authors also point to the potential environmental benefits of living closer to work, calculating that nearly 900,000 commuting miles could be trimmed if 100 residents moved into communities closer to their employment. This would reduce pollution: 117kg less nitrogen oxide, 1,011kg less carbon monoxide, and 350 tons less carbon dioxide per year.

And indeed, among A Long Way from Home’s seven recommendations about how the Asheville region can encourage affordable housing development is that regional affordable housing and environmental advocacy groups should develop a working group or coalition “to facilitate communication, identify common interests, and seek win-win solutions to issues.” The time may finally be ripe for such a coalition.

Download the full report.

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