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How transportation affects affordability in NYC

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A new report from the Citizens Budget Commission ranks NYC as the eighth most affordable large city, based on housing and transportation costs

Max Touhey |

We know that New York City is in the midst of an affordability crisis, and that housing costs are skyrocketing. But housing is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to affordability in cities, with other factors—transportation, food prices, and other goods and services—all factoring in. When all of that is taken together, how does New York City compare to other cities?

A new study by the Citizens Budget Commission, “Rent and Ride: Affordability Is About Both,” sought to answer that question, and found that—surprisingly!—New York City is the eighth most affordable large city in the U.S., when you factor in housing and transportation costs alongside the city’s median income.

The CBC focused on the 20 U.S. cities with the largest economies (including places like Miami, San Francisco, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.), and compared that to the percentage of income residents spend on both housing and transportation. According to its research, the high cost of housing and the relatively low cost of transportation in NYC end up canceling each other out. Those factors, along with the city’s median annual income of $69,211, mean that New York households spend 45.3 percent of their income on housing and transportation, which makes it the eighth most-affordable among the 20 cities surveyed.

The top three most affordable cities according to the CBC study are Washington D.C., San Jose, and San Francisco, while the least affordable ones are Phoenix, Detroit, and Miami.
Courtesy of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC).

The top three most affordable cities with housing and transportation costs combined are Washington D.C., San Jose, and San Francisco, while the least affordable ones are Phoenix, Detroit, and Miami. This may seem surprising, but the report explains that cities with robust public transit systems tend to be more affordable (especially for low-income households), transportation-wise, while cities where a car is necessary tend to be less affordable.

But these results should be taken with a grain of salt, as New York City still exceeds the affordability threshold. Per the report, households that spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing and more than 15 percent on transportation are considered cost-burdened. Based on data from HUD, many New York City households would still be considered cost-burdened; the typical household spends $1,778/month, or 30.8 percent, of its income on housing. (Housing costs are higher in San Jose, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, but New Yorkers spend a higher percentage of their median income per month).

“For many New Yorkers, the city’s high housing costs are offset by its lower transportation costs and higher household incomes,” the report reads. “Still, for low-income New Yorkers, high housing costs, even when combined with relatively affordable transportation costs, often break the bank.”

The study says that “cities with higher housing costs tend to have relatively lower transportation costs, and vice versa.”
Courtesy of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC)

Plus, the city faces two big challenges to its so-called “affordability competitiveness.” First, there’s the MTA’s fiscal woes to repair its system, which the report says need to be solved without increasing the cost of transportation for New Yorkers. (According to a 2016 Community Service Society (CSS) study, one in four low-income New Yorkers can’t afford MetroCards.) Second, as demand for housing drives costs up, the city should address the issue of housing supply and “alleviate housing cost pressures.”

The report uses income data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to compare New York to cities like Miami, Detroit, Phoenix, Washington D.C., Boston, and San Francisco; the figures included are based on what the study calls the “median household” for each city, or one with two earners and two children making the area’s median family household income.