Redfin’s chief economist argues that cities should encourage dense housing to reduce carbon emissions
The way we tackle the housing affordability crisis will have a large impact on the environment. Currently, in the Los Angeles metro, a family earning the local median household income of $69,992 would have to live as far as 65 miles away in Palmdale, where the commute time to downtown Los Angeles ranges from one to two hours during rush hour. A driver doing that commute would emit over 50 kg of carbon per day, while someone who lives in downtown Los Angeles would emit nearly no carbon walking or taking mass transit to work. That means every additional unit of housing built in downtown Los Angeles could prevent over 13,655 kg of carbon emissions each year. That’s more than enough carbon to cancel out 13 meat-eaters going vegan.
In many cities, the only places that middle- and low-income people can afford to live is on the outskirts, where residents have to drive farther to get to work, school and the grocery store, emitting more carbon into the atmosphere. Cities need to build dense housing near jobs or mass-transit to allow residents to live a greener lifestyle, in order to significantly limit carbon emissions.
To quantify the housing affordability crisis’s impact on the environment across the country, we analyzed the commute times in 54 major metro areas of homes for sale with at least two bedrooms that would be affordable to a family earning the local median income. In order for a home to be considered affordable, we assumed a family would spend no more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing. Less than one in four homes that were listed for sale last year were both within a 30 minute drive to the local jobs center and affordable for the typical family making the median income in each metro.
Below is a ranking of metros by shortest average commute time for homes for sale that are affordable on the local median income to the local job center.
Philadelphia has the shortest average commute time from affordable homes for sale to its job center. It only takes 19 minutes to drive to work on average from the affordable homes for sale, down from 20 minutes in 2013.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles, where more than 85 percent of workers commute by car, has the longest average commute time from affordable homes for sale to its job center. It takes a whopping 50 minutes to drive to work on average from the affordable homes for sale, up from 45 minutes in 2013.
In the last five years, cities have become less dense and therefore less environmentally friendly. The share of homes for sale that are affordable and within a 30 minute drive to the job center has decreased from 33 percent to 22 percent in the last five years. Unless cities build more dense housing close to jobs or mass transit, the carbon impact from middle- and low-income workers having to commute long distances by car will continue to worsen.
Minneapolis has taken a step in the right direction by doing away with single-family zoning, which will lead to more dense housing over time. But governments should go further and subsidize dense affordable housing close to jobs. The same way that governments have subsidized green investments like solar panels, governments should subsidize construction of dense housing near jobs and mass transit because that’s also a green investment.