Transportation a growing barrier to area housing, employment

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People choose where to live for a variety of reasons: Is it safe? Is it close to work and good schools? Is the housing decent and affordable?

For people facing housing insecurity, one additional consideration can mean the difference between stability and crisis: Is there a bus stop nearby?

Unfortunately, the interconnectedness of public transit and affordable housing too often is lost on policymakers and planners, not only in The Corridor.

To truly end homelessness here, as anywhere, those connections must be a top priority.

Our society has long equated housing with economic security and a strong middle class. “The American dream,” we’re told, is our own house, surrounded by our own patch of grass far from the hustle and bustle of commerce. Transportation and tax policies have incentivized homeownership and sent communities sprawling.

New development, often funded with taxpayer incentives, is centralized around major roads and highways. Industrialized development is zoned for one area, retail growth in another. Elsewhere in the community, typically far from employment centers, are the residential spaces.

That can be a pleasant arrangement for families with the means and access to vehicles. But lower-income households haven’t fared as well. Rising housing costs have placed some neighborhoods out of reach. Inner city housing remains scarce, despite rising demand.

For struggling wage earners, even more affordable rural housing can be out of reach because of high costs for transportation.

“Not having adequate transportation is one of the largest barriers we face when trying to connect a person or family with affordable housing,” said J’nae Peterman, director of homeless and housing services at Waypoint in Cedar Rapids. “If no vehicle is available, options are incredibly limited. Everything a household needs — housing, employment, child care, medical services and other services — will need to be within walking distance of public transportation.”

Here in Eastern Iowa, limited transportation options mean that people without cars spend longer in emergency shelters, even after they qualify for subsidized housing, because prime locations along bus routes don’t become available as often.

EXPENSIVE TRADE-OFFS

In Cedar Rapids, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a family of four earning the median household income (in Cedar Rapids, that’s $56,542) spends 27 percent of that income on housing. The next largest expense category is transportation, which averages 22 percent of household income. That means that roughly 50 percent of everything a family of four earns is spent on shelter or transportation.

Iowa City residents don’t fare much better. A family of four earning the median household income in that city spends 27 percent of its income on housing, and 21 percent on transportation.

Moving to West Branch could see a slight savings in housing cost since only 26 percent of income is needed, but the increased transportation costs will take a toll. That same family of four in West Branch spends 25 percent of its income getting to where they need to go — in Belle Plaine and Coggon transportation cost jumps to 27 percent.

Not only is owning and driving a private vehicle expensive, the amount of ground covered in that vehicle directly impacts the amount of money that must be spent on ongoing maintenance. And there is no guarantee that regular maintenance will prevent all breakdowns.

For a family already living on thin margins, the costs can be catastrophic.

“It isn’t unusual to receive a call from someone who is facing a $170 bill to have a car fixed, but paying the money will mean not being able to make a rent payment,” said Peterman. “It’s a homelessness prevention issue, but there are very limited resources available for that type of assistance.”

Only when the vehicle is lost that the family realizes their doctor’s office, school, employer or child care either isn’t on an available bus route or requires transportation outside of operation hours.

“An unexpected loss of transportation can begin a downward spiral that ends in homelessness,” said Jeremy Endsley, a VISTA volunteer who works with Shelter House in Iowa City and coordinates a regional Community Transportation Committee. “Without transportation, people have difficulty getting to work, getting their children to caregivers or to school.”

Those without a private vehicle or with disabilities that prevent them from driving must build their lives around public transit schedules and routes.

FEW PUBLIC OPTIONS

The hours of operation for all public transit services in the Corridor are limited. In Cedar Rapids, bus service ends at roughly 7 p.m. In Iowa City and Coralville, service stops around 11 p.m. All cities provide reduced service on Saturday and no service on Sunday.

A patchwork of services aim to cover service gaps. In Cedar Rapids, the city has partnered with Horizons to offer call-ahead night rides through the NTS program. Shelter House in Iowa City is experimenting with ride service provided by volunteers. There’s also discussion of extending public transit hours, at least on some routes.

All of the stopgap measures, however, focus on practicalities such as getting to and from work or classes. Those without transportation who wish to attend evening meetings, attend their child’s school concert, buy groceries, or go to a baseball game are forced to consider other, more costly services.

Across all local jurisdictions, there are significant opportunities for change.

Regulatory changes, investments and incentives that promote mixed use, mixed income development that is walkable and served by transit should be the rule, not the exception.

Revitalizing instead of reconfiguring or redeveloping core communities is key since many of these areas already are being served by public transit, and density makes transit more efficient.

State and local expenditures should be used to aid and not hamper alternatives to driving, and development incentives must be coupled with mandated inclusion of affordable housing.

The state’s most vulnerable families need and deserve a homelessness prevention safety net that can address small financial difficulties before they become large taxpayer burdens.

If our communities are expected to grow strong, entice a diverse pool of businesses and workers and provide for a rapidly aging core population, we must provide affordable housing with multiple transportation options.

• Gazette editorials reflect the consensus opinion of The Gazette Editorial Board. Share your comments and ideas with us: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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