Streets for People / How Better Transit and Bicycle Facilities Can Help Address Affordable Housing

Chris Hamilton

A survey of residents in January, conducted as part of the City’s strategic plan process, identified affordable housing as the number one area of concern. No surprise. It’s been the number one issue for decades and still is. It seems all of our discussions of affordable housing focus mostly on the cost of rent or a mortgage. But that’s only part of the affordability problem of living in Key West, or in any city. The other is the hidden cost of transportation. Specifically owning and operating cars to get around. Research shows that many close-in, more expensive neighborhoods are actually cheaper to live in than those further away from the center city. Why? Because these neighborhoods are served by excellent public transit and bike facilities, lessening the need for families to own multiple cars. So, shouldn’t the City, as part of its approach to affordable housing, also ramp up public transit service and bicycling facilities bringing total affordability costs down? Yes, they should. We’ve even got the plans already on the books to get there, if the City’s leaders are willing to implement them faster. Let’s explore.

Affordable Housing in Key West

To its credit, the Mayor and City Commission are marshalling resources to address the affordable housing issue through their extremely well-run strategic planning process. They just had a very informative and thoughtful Affordable Housing Workshop on April 21. They’ve released a draft Key West Forward Affordable Housing document with a four-point process in goals and actions for getting there:

  1. Build capacity for coordination and long-term planning
  2. Develop new housing (College Rd., Bahama Village, etc.)
  3. Preserve and renovate existing housing
  4. Legislative and regulatory measures

If you read the draft, you’ll come away thinking these are all admirable goals and solid actions to be explored and taken. But nothing in any document or discussion addresses transportation as it relates to affordability. The City should take a step back and look at the total affordability issue to see if there’s additional ways, they can help address the problem.

Housing + Transportation = Affordable Living: A More Complete Measure of Affordability

For most people, after housing, transportation is their second biggest expense. In December the American Automobile Association said that in 2020 the average annual cost of vehicle ownership rose to more than $9,500. Now multiply that by every adult in a household and you’ve got a serious expense. In fact, many American households spend more on cars than they do housing, especially in the suburbs.

Studies that have looked at housing and transportation costs have found that lower transportation costs in many urban areas with good access and transit help offset higher housing costs across most income groups. Location affordability measures the share of income spent on housing AND transportation. Households in location efficient places spent significantly less on household transportation, often enough to offset the higher housing costs of these choice neighborhoods. Walkable blocks with good transit service and bike facilities especially contribute to these savings.

If you live in one of these walkable neighborhoods with good transit and bicycle facilities, you may be able to live not owning a car or having just one car for a two-adult working family. If you live in a car-dependent subdivision those same two adults need two cars to commute to work, take the kids to school and go on errands that include shopping and play.

More than 15 years ago in a groundbreaking study, the Center for Housing Policy linked these two together in their report entitled A Heavy Load – The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families. On average, the study found that working families in 28 metropolitan areas spent 57 percent of their incomes on the combined costs of housing and transportation, with roughly 28 percent of income going for housing and 29 percent going for transportation. In the search for low-cost housing, working families often “drive till they qualify” or locate far from the center of town where housing is often less expensive than neighborhoods close to downtown. But this dramatically increases their transportation costs and commute times because this housing is car dependent.

The study found that one of the effects of the drive till you qualify mentality is an increase in driving that increases congestion in a city. Something we’ve also noticed in Key West.

In Key West there are More Cars, Longer Travel and No One Takes the Bus

Drive till you qualify is born out in the stats. Data gathered from the U.S. Census American Community Survey 5 year average, in 2019 and the 2019 Key West Transit Development Plan (TDP) paints a picture of a lot of vehicle ownership and car use for commuting and little if any use of public transit. The data also tell us something we already anecdotally know. Traffic across the Cow Key Bridge is increasing because so many people that work in the City now live in the County and a good number of people that live here also now work in the County. We’ve all heard stories of a less congested Key West in the 1970’s and 80’s, when more people lived and worked on the island.

The search for more affordable housing has led many to the outer reaches of New Town, places like West Isle Club, Ocean Walk, Las Salinas, and Seaside and beyond the Cow Key Bridge to Stock Island, Big Coppitt, Sugarloaf, Summerland, the Torches, Big Pine and even Marathon. This has led to more cars and more driving. Fully 55% of Key West households and 65% of Monroe County (including Key West) households own 2 or more cars. More cars per family makes the cost of living more expensive.

Commute Mode Monroe 2019 KW 2019 KW 2010 KW 2000
Drove Alone 69% 63% 47% 56%
Carpool 7%  8% 7% 11%
Transit 1% .05% 2% 1%
Walk 5% 6% 7% 8%
Bicycle 7% 12% 16% NA*
Taxi, Other 5% 7% 14% 18%
Work @ Home 6% 4% 8% 6%
* included in Other
Worked in place 55% 65%
Worked out of place 36% 30%
 
Vehicles None 6% 10% 11%
Vehicles 1 29% 36% 38%
Vehicles 2 42% 37% 34%
Vehicles 3+ 23% 18% 17%
 

2019 numbers link here. 2010 link here. 2000 link here.

Housing and Transportation Costs in Key West and Monroe County

The Center for Neighborhood Technology or CNT is a four-decades old non-profit think tank dedicated to providing research, tools and solutions to create sustainable and equitable communities so that neighborhoods, cities and regions work better for everyone. Over the years they’ve created some powerful, data driven interactive tools, one of the most popular of which is the Housing + Transportation Index (H+T®). From their website: “The traditional measure of affordability recommends that housing cost no more than 30% of household income. Under this view, a little over half (55%) of U.S. neighborhoods are considered “affordable” for the typical household. However, that benchmark fails to take into account transportation costs, which are typically a household’s second-largest expenditure. When transportation costs are factored into the equation, the number of affordable neighborhoods drops to 26%, resulting in a net loss of 59,768 neighborhoods that Americans can truly afford.”

“The Index shows that transportation costs vary between and within regions depending on neighborhood characteristics. People who live in location-efficient neighborhoods—compact, mixed-use, and with convenient access to jobs, services, transit and amenities—tend to have lower transportation costs.”

According to the CNT transportation costs are considered affordable if they are 15% or less of household income. So, the overall Affordability threshold would be 30% for housing and 15% for transportation for a combined 50% of income.

There’s No “Affordable Living” (Housing or Transportation) in Key West

In many cities across the U.S., you’ll often find that center city and inner ring neighborhoods that were built to a walking and biking scale and that have good transit are location efficient and have lower Affordable Living costs than their car-dependent suburban neighbors. Key West is compact and much of our city’s street grid was laid out for walking. So, we have some good bones to start with and that is borne out in the number of commuters who walk and bike. But we have horrible transit.

When we use this tool and look at neighborhoods in Key West and Monroe County it tells us something we all already know. Neither the City, at 40% of income nor the County at 39% qualifies as affordable in meeting the 30% standard. And our car-dependent transportation makes it worse.  In Key West we are at 20% of income and in the County at 22% spent on transportation. Well above the 15% affordable standard and way above at 60% and 61% respectively on the combined standard of 50%.  Data shows that Americans spend 13% of their income on transportation.

H+T Fact Sheet for Key West

H+T Fact Sheet for Monroe County

In Key West a Regional Typical Household has an income of $57,000. Housing costs = 40% of income. Transportation costs = 20% of income and total housing + transportation costs = 60% of income. If we look at Regional Moderate Households with incomes that average $45,000, an even higher percentage of income is taken. Housing costs = 50% of income, transportation costs = 22% of income and total housing + transportation costs = 72% of Income.

The numbers mirror the national trend line as housing is slightly cheaper overall in Monroe County, but transportation costs are higher and so overall livability or housing + transportation costs are higher. Regional Typical Housing 39% + Transportation 22% = 61%. Regional Moderate Housing 49% + 35% Transportation = 74%. So, living in car-dependent Monroe County is more expensive overall. But because transit is so awful in Key West, we don’t see the much lower transportation costs in the close in neighborhoods that you get in other cities.

The City Should Adopt a Broader View of Affordability that Includes Transportation – Affordable Living

As we stated at the top, we find it admirable that the City leaders are working hard to address housing affordability. With the help of their wonderful Strategic Planning Consultant Elisa Levy, and a host of local experts and advocates, we have no doubt some good things will happen on adding to the supply of units that are less expensive to rent and own on that 40 to 50 percent of income that goes towards housing. But we’d posit that the City can bring down overall livability costs by bringing down the 20 to 22 percent of income that goes towards transportation. So, if the City adopts a broader view of Affordability that includes transportation, they can bring more tools to the effort.

3 Ways We Bring the Cost of Transportation and Thus Overall Affordable Living Down in Key West

Fifty-five percent of households in Key West and 65% of households in Monroe County have two or more cars. Only 10% of city households and 6% of Monroe County households are car free. When I left my native Washington, D.C. 6 years ago nearly 40% of all residents living in the District of Columbia and about 8 in 10 new residents to the city didn’t own a car. Why? Because the public transit, biking and walking is so excellent. This helped make living in the city relatively affordable and is one of the driving forces in why the city added 90,000 people in the last decade. Put another way. In the District, housing as a percentage of income is high and comparable to Key West at 40% of income. But transportation costs are 14% of income for an overall Score of 54% compared to Key West’s 60%. That’s the difference quality transportation can make.

In order to bring Affordable Living costs down in Key West, we have to enable people with multiple cars to go car-lite and people with one car to go car-free. Here’s how:

  1. Promote Mixed-Use Infill Development and Coordinate it With Transportation Services

Much of the more recent affordable housing stock, like the 208-unit Quarry Apartments on Big Coppitt, have been built up the Keys. The upcoming 280-unit Wreckers Cay project and the 104-unit College Road project are being built on Stock Island. Most everything, at least at present, beyond Cow Key Bridge, we should consider car dependent. Building workforce housing where every adult and most teens need their own car to get to work, school and play is nuts.

The City’s draft Housing Plan includes the 3.2 Acres in Bahama Village site for affordable housing and identifies other island locations for more housing. This is a good thing. So are ideas for amending the code to allow more accessory dwelling units and up zoning shopping centers and other parcels to incentivize redevelopment that includes a mix of uses, including affordable housing.

All of this needs to be coordinated with transportation options in mind. Building new housing near existing or planned transportation improvements is imperative. So is planning future transportation projects to serve working families. Optimally all of the development along major transit and bicycle facilities should be allowed to get denser.

  1. Institute Free, Frequent and Simple Transit NOW

We can’t address transportation affordability and thus overall affordability, without a decent transit alternative. And let’s face it, other than the Duval Loop, public transit service in Key West is worse than abysmal. The “frequent” Duval Loop service has been slipping and no longer arrives every 15-20 minutes. The North and South Lines have 90–120-minute printed waits in between buses. And the Lower Keys Shuttle has 10 inbound trips a day and 10 outbound trips a day with waits of one to two plus hours between buses. On top of the inadequate service, bus stops provide no information about what route stops there or where the bus will go (The Sorry State of Key West Bus Stops – We Just Don’t Care; April 2, 2021). The transit agency doesn’t even try to market and promote what service they do have (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – A Dozen Marketing Things KW Transit Can Do to Increase Ridership; April 9, 2021).

No wonder about ½ of one percent (0.5%) of Key West residents and about 1% of Monroe County residents use public transit to get to work. The numbers don’t lie. Other than biking and walking there’s essentially no alternative to get around. In the Location Efficient neighborhoods, we discussed earlier, there was excellent transit service. That allowed households to ditch one or both of their cars which brought down the neighborhood’s overall affordability. Until our leaders seriously address our woeful transit system, most people will have no choice but to pay nearly $10,000 a year to own and operate each car on top of their already exorbitant rent or mortgage.

But there’s hope.

In late 2019, the City Commission adopted an ambitious, progressive 10-Year Transit Development Plan (TDP) promising a system of five “Loops” (Duval, Old Town, Midtown, New Town, Stock Island) connected by a four simple “Connector” lines (Airport – along S. Roosevelt, North – along N. Roosevelt, Intermodal Connector – from a Stock Island Park n Ride to downtown, and Lower Keys Shuttle) all with 15-20 minute frequencies and eventually free fares. A system like THIS just might be able to serve our residents and workers and allow them to be less dependent on their cars and thus eventually have a more affordable living.

On January 14, the City’s Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB) adopted a Fare Free Resolution calling on the City to raise metered parking rates by $0.50 cents to target implementing the Plan sooner than later (Sustainability Board Wants to Make Free, Frequent and Simple Key West Transit a Reality; February 6, 2021). The SAB is following up on its January resolution and making their proposal part of their annual priority list being developed now. Hopefully, City Commission and staff will take note of the SAB’s good work.

The SAB has proposed a new funding mechanism to speed of implementation of a very good transit plan. Federal money is pouring into the City’s coffers for transit. And parking revenues that help fund the bus system are up. So now is the time, during the current budget process for the next fiscal year that begins October 1, to set the Free, Frequent and Simple plan in motion on an expedited timetable. Especially as the issue can be addressed in both the affordable housing process and strategic plan.

And let’s set a goal to help focus our efforts. On such a small island, shouldn’t we set a goal of 10% of Key West residents getting to work by transit by 2025?

  1. Radically Speed Up Implementation of Our Bike/Ped Plan

We’re fortunate that bicycling as an alternative to driving is faring much better than public transit. So is walking. 12 percent of Key West residents already bike to work. Seven percent walk. But, listening to long-time residents it seems like even more people use to do this. But with our longer commutes and more congested streets it is likely getting harder and harder to entice people to do this. We’ve already got the low-hanging fruit of people that are confident enough to bike and walk on our streets. According to national surveys, when it comes to bicycling, about half the population falls into an “interested but concerned” category that is willing to bike if they perceived it were safer and easier. For this group that means high quality bicycle infrastructure. Here’s what that looks like:

Picture it. Clearly marked separated and protected bike lanes, greenways or bike boulevards, and off-street paths connect throughout the city, forming a seamless, uninterrupted network of bicycle facilities allowing safe travel through and around the island for everyone of all ages and abilities. Signs show bikers and walkers where they are and how to get to their destination. Bike boxes at busy intersections create space for bicycles ahead of the cars. Ample bike parking is found within a block of all work, shop and play destinations. Wider sidewalks in busy downtown areas, intersections with bump outs and mid-block crosswalks, traffic calming to slow the cars, and places for people to sit, watch, chat and eat in more places. This is the vision the Key West Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Transportation Plan paints for our future.

As one of Key West’s preeminent bike advocates consistently says, the island is warm, flat and small, so our focus should be on getting more people to bike, because that’s cheaper than accommodating cars. We agree. And we have a world class Bike/Ped Plan already vetted and done. In fact, our Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator has already started some projects including the first phase of the Crosstown Greenway and planning for the Salt Ponds and Smathers Beach Trails. But if we put more staff and money into it, we could ramp up the number of bicycle projects 10-fold and make a big jump.

With the advent of cheaper electric bikes and scooters, on a flat, small and warm island that is no more than four by two miles, shouldn’t we set a goal of at least 30% of our work trips made by bike by 2025? And at least 10% by walking.

Excellent Options to Driving Make Our Island More Affordable Too

With 2025 commute mode goals of 10% for transit, 30% for bicycling and 10% for walking, that would mean fully half of all commute trips would be by these alternative modes. And when you add in carpool and other modes, it would mean that the drive alone rate would be closer to 40% instead of the current 63%. Those kinds of numbers can help bring living costs down.

For a few years now at Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown we’ve been saying that an island where more people use the bus, bike and walk is more healthy, green, sustainable, equitable, prosperous and happy. We’d like to amend or usual list and add that an island where more people can take transit, bike and walk more easily is also more affordable too. Especially for working people. If we’re finally going to make headway on an affordable housing issue that has vexed our island for decades, maybe we need to come up with some new strategies and come at it from a new angle.

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Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. He’s a native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.