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Transportation, The Hidden Cost

The metro line shutting down a couple of weeks ago caused me to reflect on a couple of things. The first is how integral the metro train is to many of us who live in the D.C. metro area. Also, I immediately recognized that the shutdown would have a disproportionately negative impact on certain workers. While many people I know had the opportunity to telework, I realized that certain workers would not have that privilege, and I could see how this shut down would have a notable impact on low-income workers. For many D.C. residents, bus is a preferred method of transportation, yet, in general, commuters living further away from downtown DC or in Maryland or Virginia have less public transportation options.

The metro train is a key source of transportation for residents who live in the area, and although the metro shutdown affected people of all income levels, those of higher incomes had greater access to transportation alternatives (such as car services like Uber or taxi cabs), are more likely to own a vehicle, or have greater flexibility to work from home than lower wage earners. However, as I looked into this matter further, I realized that the truth is that the lack of transportation is not a phenomenon that low-income people faced only during the metro shutdown, but they are at a disadvantage when it comes to transportation access all year around.

This issue of access to transportation goes hand-in-hand with access to affordable housing. Affordable housing isn’t truly affordable if a significant portion of one’s income is spent on transportation. Transportation is now being recognized as the “hidden cost” of housing. Traditionally, people have been identified as cost burdened if they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. However, those who study affordable housing and transportation have begun using a rule that “states that housing and transportation (H+T) should be no more than 45 percent of a household’s income.”

To complicate this issue, housing around metro lines is growing increasingly more expensive, due to the demand generated by the high income earners that are moving into those areas. This makes it harder to build and preserve affordable housing near metro lines, and it is contributing to price hikes of housing in these areas. This trend is pushing lower income people away from transit accessible housing, to areas where rents may be less but their transportation costs are greater. Over the years we have seen this become increasingly problematic in D.C., but it is also a problem in many other cities across the nation. At a Brookings event last month, Housing Secretary Castro spoke on this issue, stating, “We need to stop stacking and segregating poverty. Improving transportation and fair housing are keys to equality and opportunity”. Hopefully, as we continue to advocate for affordable housing options we will find innovative ways to address these two needs simultaneously.

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