Hanging out on the roof, Downtown Atlanta.

The affordability swindle: why living in sunbelt sprawl actually costs more

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Sprawl apologists like Joel Kotkin like to trumpet the continuing population shift to sunbelt metros of the southern US as proof that people prefer to live in these car-centric places that are spread out far and wide — as opposed to compact, walkable cities.

Others believe that there’s a draw to sunbelt states because of pro-business, low-regulation policies that allow for better wages. New York Time columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote an excellent piece that counters that argument, pointing out that, though the population shift is undeniable:

[From 2000-2012] greater Atlanta’s population grew almost 27 percent, and greater Houston’s grew almost 30 percent. America’s center of gravity is shifting south and west.

…this shift to the sunbelt isn’t due to wages:

The average job in greater Houston pays 12 percent less than the average job in greater New York; the average job in greater Atlanta pays 22 percent less.

In other words, what the facts really suggest is that Americans are being pushed out of the Northeast (and, more recently, California) by high housing costs rather than pulled out by superior economic performance in the Sunbelt.

The other draw that sunbelt metros are assumed to have is lower costs of living due to more affordable housing. And though the houses themselves may be lower in price, a new study shows that overall living costs are actually higher in these sprawling, car-centric areas due to transportation spending. Kaid Benfield has the info here: How Transit, Walkability Help Make Cities More Affordable.

A quote from Benfield:

The least affordable cities when housing and transportation costs are combined and compared to typical household income turn out to be sprawling, Sun Belt cities:  Riverside, California; Miami; and Jacksonville.  Those three cities also have the study’s highest transportation costs for a typical household, because of high rates of driving and relatively low use of mass transit.

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So even though lower home prices are an obvious draw to sunbelt metros — and appear to be the sole reason behind the population shift — these prices aren’t low enough to truly provide a cost-of-living advantage over more walkable cities when we factor in the big costs of car-centric living.

Places that are more compact and walkable offer more transportation choices, rather than tying all residents to expensive car mobility. Additionally, they provide a built environment that gives multiple generations of residents the ability to get around without a car.

As I’ve written before, when we build car-sprawl for the middle-class car owners of today, we’re also building environments that will be eventually devalued by the common trends of the real estate market and that will likely be housing the low-income populations of the future. It’s better to pass along walkable environments to future inhabitants of our places than saddling yet another generation with car dependency.

The answer to a more sustainable pattern of housing affordability is not to accept car-centric sprawl as inevitable — it’s to find ways to create lower housing costs inside walkable environments and encourage a population shift within that format.

Top photo of Atlanta suburbs by Flickr user Maik

Bottom photo of Atlanta traffic by Flickr user Craig Allen

A couple of photos from today.

Top: a little bit of nature in a whole lot of city, on Poplar Street in Downtown Atlanta.

Bottom: a little bit of city in a whole lot of nature — flowering vines on Old Wheat Street, with the Bank of America tower just visible on the left.

Tags: atlanta

Potential adaptive reuse project squandered in Atlanta: Historic Trio Building

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Barring a last minute miracle, the Trio Laundry building at 20 Hilliard Street, located near Edgewood Avenue and the new streetcar tracks, will be demolished tomorrow.

This 104-year-old building survived the 1917 Great Fire of Atlanta with only minimal damage. It’s sister Trio building across the street did so as well, by way of a sprinkler system installed by forward-thinking owners. It was such a great save that the sprinkler company used it as source material for advertising:

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In its time, Trio Laundry was a well-known service in Atlanta. Here’s a newspaper headline from the opening of the building in 1910:

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After changing hands and serving other purposes over the years, the building was purchased by the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) for purposes unknown, but it certainly could have been converted to affordable housing. Instead, the building suffered years of neglect in terms of its structural needs and the roof began to collapse. AHA asked for and received permission to demolish it (special permission was necessary since it lies within the King Historic District).

Now, you may ask what the good is of lamenting the loss of a building that is, architecturally, less than significant and that has structural problems. Among others, I’ll highlight three reasons:

1. Environmental Good: The greenest building construction is the reuse of an old building. As Kaid Benfield reported ”it can take between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient operations, the negative energy and climate change impacts caused in the construction process.”

2. Authenticity: When we lose old buildings, we lose the aged structures that tell stories of Atlanta’s history (such as surviving the Great Fire) and that visually give our neighborhoods a sense of authenticity when they’re mixed in among newer buildings.

3. Responsibility: The AHA had a responsibility to take care of this historic-district building after purchasing it, opting instead to let it fall apart through years of neglect — something that is against existing laws. We need to make sure that new owners of old buildings in historic districts take care of them.

Assuming the building gets demolished tomorrow, the one thing we can gain from the experience is the drive to pressure the city to enforce its own laws and pressure building owners to step up and take responsibility as caretakers.

All images taken from the Facebook page Save the Historic Trio Building. If you’re interested in participating, be at the building (near the corner of Edgewood and Hilliard) tomorrow morning — that’s Monday August 25 — at 7am for a peaceful protest.

Images from a day in Downtown Atlanta.

Friday is my telecommute day. Staying home on a weekday is great because it gives me a chance to go for a walk during lunch and take in the busy Monday-Friday street life Downtown, while en route to and from a nearby restaurant.

Being around crowds is a joy for me and I always look forward to the rich sensory experience of walking into the masses of people on Broad Street (top photo, above), hearing their chatter mixed in with the sounds of sidewalk musicians, and enjoying the smells of grilled meats at Dua and frying falafel at Ali Baba’s.

On a smaller scale, it’s nice to pick up details like the little green chutes of plant life working their way through sidewalks. That middle photo is of a small hole in the concrete on Luckie Street that’s been filled by microscopic leaves, not much bigger than the granules of rock surrounding them. It may be a stretch, but it seemed to me like a minuscule version of the human life that works it’s way into the concrete jungle.

Back at home, a large cloud that looked like a great mothership from outer space briefly covered the sky, then went away.

Author Margaret Mitchell died 65 years ago this week. I always stop to read this odd little plaque when I’m walking on Peachtree in Midtown. It’s on a tree near 17th Street, and the text cryptically claims that the tree is one “whose shade she knew.” 

Whatever you think about Gone with the Wind, there’s no denying that Mitchell was an interesting person and I recommend the tour of the Margaret Mitchell House. It’s a nice way to find out what it was like for a woman in the south during the 30s to write a novel in a small apartment. 

Mitchell died on August 16, 1949 after being struck by a drunk driver. It happened while she and her husband were walking across Peachtree at 13th Street, on their way to see a movie.

Author Margaret Mitchell died 65 years ago this week. I always stop to read this odd little plaque when I’m walking on Peachtree in Midtown. It’s on a tree near 17th Street, and the text cryptically claims that the tree is one “whose shade she knew.”

Whatever you think about Gone with the Wind, there’s no denying that Mitchell was an interesting person and I recommend the tour of the Margaret Mitchell House. It’s a nice way to find out what it was like for a woman in the south during the 30s to write a novel in a small apartment.

Mitchell died on August 16, 1949 after being struck by a drunk driver. It happened while she and her husband were walking across Peachtree at 13th Street, on their way to see a movie.

Tags: atlanta

Peachtree Street in the evening

Peachtree Street in the evening