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Moving Forward – Connecting the Dots: Public Health, Smart Growth, and Affordable Housing

by Jeffrey Lubell, Center for Housing Policy

There is growing attention within the public health field to the importance of land use. By encouraging communities to develop in a way that allows individuals to meet many of their daily transportation needs safely and efficiently by walking or biking, and by working to ensure that everyone has access to green space and fresh fruits and vegetables, public health advocates hope to support healthy living styles that will reduce obesity and diabetes.

These kinds of land use changes could benefit everyone, but they’re particularly important for the low-income minority populations that are most likely to experience obesity and be overweight. While land use is not the only cause of rising obesity among these households – and not the only solution – it seems likely that improving walkability and access to fresh fruit and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods will help address this major public health crisis.

For this reason, it’s exciting to see public health advocates backing smart growth land use policies. But without a specific focus on preserving affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods, there is a danger that the objectives of both public health and smart growth will be compromised. In short, it’s likely that success in creating highly desirable walkable communities will lead to rent and homeownership cost increases that price out many low and moderate-income families, forcing them to relocate to less walkable neighborhoods at the periphery of metro areas.

Developers in many cities already report a pent-up demand for compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods oriented around transit stations and town centers. With the population of older and younger adults set to rise dramatically in coming years, and energy prices expected to increase, demand should grow significantly for close-in, location-efficient communities where transportation costs are low and amenities are easily accessed by walking, biking, or public transit.

So here’s the problem. Given the challenges involved in developing housing in already developed areas, it is unlikely that this increase in demand will be matched by an adequate increase in housing supply. As a result, rents and home prices will go up, pushing many low- and moderate-income families out of these walkable communities and into more remote locations. We’re already seeing housing cost increases associated with many public transit investments. As demand for transit-oriented development and other types of walkable neighborhoods increases, we’re likely to see prices rise even further.

The foreclosure crisis has generated a large inventory of unsold homes that should keep home sale prices in check for some time. But, over the long-term, demographic trends are likely to prevail and cause housing cost increases in many desirable, walkable, mixed-use communities. Residents of the Bay Area, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and other high-priced communities are already familiar with this problem. In the coming decades, this is likely to spread to other metro areas as well.

Some may wonder why this is a problem. After all, we’ll still have more walkability and reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. But as the public health advocates will tell you, pushing the people we’re trying to help most out of the communities we’re trying to serve will greatly undermine the public health benefits.

This will also reduce the diversity and vitality of our urban neighborhoods and undermine the benefits of smart growth in two ways. First, it will reduce the share of the region’s population that can be served by compact, walkable communities. Second, it will force states to provide infrastructure to meet the needs of the low- and moderate-income families who have jumped over more expensive compact communities for lower-cost housing at the periphery of metro areas.

These forces won’t play out in the same way or at the same time in every market. Rather, as with the efforts to change urban form itself, they will play out slowly over many years and take time to change.

But it is clear that the overall objectives of both public health and smart growth cannot be met without corresponding efforts to preserve existing affordable housing in location-efficient communities and to ensure that new housing developed in these communities is affordable to families of all incomes.

These affordable housing efforts need to proceed hand in hand with the land use changes themselves, as it would be prohibitively expensive – and logistically very difficult – to wait until after housing prices have risen dramatically.

There are many promising approaches for building affordability into new development around transit and in other location-efficient areas. The question is whether advocates for public health, smart growth, and affordable housing can all join together to work toward their implementation.

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For more information on the connection between land use and public health, visit Public Health Law & Policy. For more information on smart growth, visit Smart Growth America.

Moving Forward is a monthly column about ideas for the future of U.S. housing policy by Jeffrey Lubell, Executive Director of the Center for Housing Policy. The column offers perspectives on the government role in housing and on broader housing market trends likely to shape future housing policy.

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