Our Work

The Insidious Costs of Our Oil Addiction

From the 6/24/2010 Burlington Free Press

By Brian Shupe

Confronted with pictures of oil-soaked pelicans struggling in Louisiana marshes, we are reminded once again of the many costs of our addiction to oil.

Now, a new study has revealed a more direct cost – also related to our petroleum-based transportation network – that is hitting closer to home: a budget strain Vermont families face if they choose to live far from town centers.

For many years, Vermonters looking for an affordable home in the country have only had to drive a little further from suburban Chittenden County to find their dream. This is readily apparent in Franklin County, where over the past decade the population has grown three times faster than the state as a whole.

Many Vermonters are finding that “affordable” housing is not cheap, however, after transportations costs are factored in. At least that’s the lesson documented in a recent study from the National Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Entitled Penny Wise Pound Fuelish: New Measures of Housing & Transportation Affordability, the study compares the conventional measure of housing affordability with one that factors in the cost of commuting to work, shopping and other daily activities. The results for the Burlington metro-area, which includes large sections of Chittenden, Grand Isle and Franklin Counties, are not surprising.

By conventional measures, Northern Franklin County, for example, is among the most affordable locations in the study area, with average housing costs equaling 26 percent of average household incomes – below the 30 percent cost-to-income ratio that is considered affordable. But when transportation costs are considered, the scattered, automobile dependent housing in this rural area is decidedly unaffordable.

The study concludes that families should not spend more than 45 percent of household income on a combination of housing and transportation. In rural Franklin County, those combined costs are as high as 61 percent of household income and this pattern repeats itself across the region. Areas where housing might be considered affordable are, according to the “housing and affordability index,” among the least affordable places to live.

So what’s most affordable? Places where transportation options exist. The study documents that a community’s location, character and design are better predictors of overall affordability than household size and income. Compact, mixed-use communities, with short commutes and the ability to walk to the store, or hop on a bus, come out ahead.

Unfortunately, many people – and many lending institutions – make housing decisions based strictly on the conventional measure of affordability.

When gas prices rise again (as they surely will) families who live far from public transportation, or can’t walk to the store, will find themselves financially squeezed and increasingly isolated.

Development scattered across the countryside is not only expensive for homeowners, but ultimately costs all Vermonters through the loss of the state’s working landscape. According to another recent study – this one by the US Department of Agriculture – 9.6%, over 90,000 acres, of Vermont’s farmland was converted to other uses between 1997 and 2007, and the amount of forestland declined by an estimated 15,900 acres (0.4 percent of the total) as Vermont becomes increasingly suburbanized

What can Vermont do to help long-term housing affordability and at the same time conserve our working landscape?

First, promote smart development. This means promoting planned growth centers, and discouraging the type of sprawling subdivisions and commercial strip development that is chewing away at Vermont’s rural land.

Until there is better local planning and the state’s primary development regulation – Act 250 – truly promotes smart development and curtails sprawl, more families risk being saddled with ever higher transportation costs, and affordability for Vermonters will be that much more elusive

Brian Shupe

Sustainable Communities Director

Vermont Natural Resources Council