Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guest Blogger Jeff Wood: Employment Location Decisions & Affordable Housing

When a company president up and moved from his current home in the city out into the suburbs, many understood that at some point the business would move also to end up closer to his home. As a location decision it was genius for the president, but perhaps not for his workforce, which was already located proximate to the current office for convenience. Just because one member is mobile, it is not likely that everyone in a medium to large company can be so inclined to move.

Over the last 60 years we saw more and more sprawl and then employment following that housing to be closer to the worker. It has been a slow methodical process of workers dispersing and the employment following, seeking an equilibrium solution. It is a somewhat endless leapfrogging that has been documented generationally in several books including Edge City by Joel Garreau and Boomburbs by Robert Lang. While edge cities are generally dense and filled with taller buildings in proximity to one another (think Century City in Los Angeles) somewhat close to the central business district of the region, boomburbs tend to be buildings along freeways, where the place is centered on the freeway.

This half century decentralization has been analyzed by numerous scholars including Edward Glaeser at Harvard and Elizabeth Kneebone at the Brookings Institute. Much of their analysis centers on how employment has moved outside of the central business district (CBD). However not a lot of analysis has looked at employment that operates outside of the CBD. Many regions have become polycentric over time and employment tends to cluster generally. So the truth is that decentralization is happening. However the issue of how to address the issue changes when we rethink the accepted definitions. Instead of just saying suburban and urban, it is likely more helpful to use Chris Leinburger’s terms of walkable urban and drivable suburban. There are places in the suburbs that can be walkable and certainly places in central cities that are only for cars.

But why does this matter for affordable housing? Because employment clusters are natural locations for increasing employment, affordable housing, and walkability. We know that affordability isn’t just tied to housing costs, but rather housing and transportation. Decentralization means more people are going to live in areas that might be more proximate to work, but not affordable when you look at overall household expenditures. In the map of the Twin Cities above, one can see that employment isn’t evenly distributed around the region. Larger concentrations of employment are drawn to each other and generally these clusters are employment centric, lacking existing residents and housing. It’s possible that this gives regional employment clusters an advantage over other areas when they begin to realize the value of the place and the current transportation dichotomy becomes too much for the place to bear. Edina cluster Southwest of downtown Minneapolis in the map above, Tyson’s Corner, and the Warner Center in Los Angeles are all tied to their current urban forms because any expansion will break the road network more than it already is. However, increases in density, transit connections, and attention to walkable form could possibly turn the tide.

We know from research in France and here in the United States that it’s harder for people to be upwardly mobile if they don’t have affordable transportation access to their jobs. Additionally, we know that it’s hard in many regions to build mixed income affordable walkable housing because of price and NIMBYism. The price issue in my opinion is due to a major market undersupply. But ultimately, these employment centers are not currently NIMBY havens, and connecting each cluster to another cluster by transit would connect the folks living in these new centers to employment in each of the other clusters increasing opportunities.

Additionally, the future densities of these places make them havens for walkability and reductions in auto usage. Part of the increase comes from proximity, but can also come from connecting transit to employment. When clusters emerge and are connected by transit, ridership increases as well. It seems intuitive, but we currently see regions that aren’t connecting their largest employment clusters because there is a less expensive freight line that skirts them all. If all regional clusters were connected; imagine what would happen to transit ridership, walking, and biking. Currently we harp on transit for not going where we want it to go, but there needs to be a realization that it needs to exist in order to use it reasonably.

There are however, barriers to this clustering approach. Tom Downs in his book “Still Stuck in Traffic” observes that political barriers such as local tax policy are hard to overcome. The perceived picking of winners and losers is often an issue that hamstrings land use policy here in the United States and will likely be cause for alarm for many. However, there are places that are realizing the benefits of these types of planning ideas. Tyson’s Corner for one is building a Metro line through the district that would allow increased densities and greater walkability. The Warner Center has the Orange Line BRT connecting it with other parts of the region and will likely intensify with greater transit infrastructure. All they are missing is big affordable housing plans.

If we are going to be thinking of affordable housing in this country, the broader vision of affordable living should come from our patterns of development and opportunities that already exist. While it’s hard to imagine regions pushing for employment to cluster in one place, the ability to make existing clusters more attractive for new firms and jobs of all income levels is something that warrants greater thinking. Ultimately this will lead to better transit location policy and increased reliance on bikes, feet, and alternative modes while also saving some folks cash on housing and transportation.

Jeff Wood is the New Media Director and Chief Cartographer at Reconnecting America. Reconnecting America is a national non-profit organization who works to integrate transportation systems and the communities, with the goal of generating lasting public and private returns, improving economic and environmental efficiency, and giving consumers more housing and mobility choices.

Image: Jeff Wood via, 
            Graphic, via,

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