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Driven into Poverty: Walkable urbanism and the suburbanization of poverty

2013 March 8
by David Moser


American suburbs are a particularly bad place to be poor. Though poverty poses dire and unjust challenges no matter where it exists, sprawling and auto-dependent land use patterns can exacerbate these difficulties. And this problem is gaining urgency, as more and more of America’s low-income individuals now live in suburbs (or are being pushed there), a phenomenon the Brookings Institute has called “the suburbanization of poverty”.

There are many reasons suburbs make the experience of poverty worse, but first among them is that automobiles are really expensive. Purchasing, maintaining, repairing, insuring, and fueling a car can easily consume 50% or more of a limited income. For someone struggling to work themselves out of poverty, these expenses can wreck havoc on even the most diligent efforts to maintain a monthly budget. With gas now approaching or exceeding $4.00/gallon, a full day’s work at minimum wage sometimes won’t pay for a single tank of gas. The burdens of sprawl weigh heaviest on the poor.

The lower one’s income, the greater is the proportional advantage of living in a walkable, “car-optional” neighborhood. Those with limited financial resources can benefit from walkability the most. But due to the scarcity and cost of urban housing, low-income people are being driven away from walkable urbanism and into auto-dependent sub-urbanism.

In the tables below I have compiled data to illustrate this. I have used walkability ratings from, and neighborhood apartment rent averages from The first table shows the walkability vs. cost of Seattle’s most walkable neighborhoods. The second table shows the same info for less-walkable cities in South King County.


The Cost of Seattle’s Most Walkable Neighborhoods



Area Median Monthly Rent
(2-bedroom apartment)

Denny Triangle












First Hill






University District



Capitol Hill




The Cost of Less-Walkable Suburban King County Cities



Area Median Monthly Rent
(2-bedroom apartment)

















Low-income individuals and families, those who need it most, are being prohibited from living in walkable neighborhoods in Seattle.  We are becoming what economist Ryan Avent has called a “Gated City”.

The reason housing costs are so high in Seattle is simple: lots of people want to live here and there aren’t enough available homes. As we know from basic economics, when the supply of any good is inelastic, and demand rises, so do prices. Accordingly, when housing supply is held constant, or not allowed to grow fast enough, and demand for that housing is high, rents will rise. And poor people will continue to be driven from the city.

The only way to slow this process is to build enough housing to meet the demand, preferably near transit. Incumbent property owners who seek to limit development and additional housing in their neighborhoods are therefore also supporting the de-facto eviction of the poor from the city.  They are the “haves” excluding the “have-nots” once again.  Though their intentions are not evil, the consequences of their actions are. And opportunistic politicians who position themselves as populist defenders of “neighborhood character” must be defeated. We must intensify our efforts to build this city. It is a just cause.


David Moser is Employment and Housing Coordinator at Neighborhood House. He is also studying public policy in the MPA program at Seattle University.

Photo of pedestrians on Pacific Highway in Seatac by Dan Bertolet.



34 Responses leave one →
  1. Limes permalink
    March 8, 2013

    I understand the sentiment you are sharing, and I do believe that you are probably correct. However, your use of data here is misleading. In Seattle, you point to specific neighborhoods, but at the suburban level you are using a larger scale unit at the city level.

    In order to have a more accurate assessment, you should also choose the neighborhoods with the highest walkscores in suburban areas.

    Your point can still be made, but you should have the right data analysis to prove it.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      March 8, 2013

      To be fair, the population of Burien is under 34,000. Ballard’s population is 32,000. As city and neighborhood boundaries are arbitrarily defined, it’s probably perfectly valid to compare a neighborhood to a city.

      • bigyaz permalink
        April 2, 2013

        No, it’s apples and oranges. The walkscore in the center of Ballard may be 94, but a lot of Ballard is residential and a long walk from shopping or services. The chart only uses the center.

        Burien center has a walkscore of 91. But the chart uses a figure for all of Burien.

        Apples and oranges.

  2. March 9, 2013


    Thank you for this, especially your point about supply.

    There almost isn’t a day that goes by when I am not talking about housing supply. I just finished a rant about it a little while ago.

    We live in a city that is full of progressive who desperately want to help poor people by making housing more “affordable” by lowering housing price.

    Price and affordability are not the same thing; affordability is a relationship to price. If we want housing prices to go down or stabilize we must increase supply.

    However, ideology –the myth of the “greedy” developer– tends to trump common sense.

    We’re making progress. Gradually I am beginning to hear closet doors creak open and I am hearing the sweet sound of “supply! supply! supply!”

    That’s how we fix price. Living in the city will likely always be “cheaper” than living elsewhere, especially since the costs of living elsewhere are largely externalized.

    Part of the solution to this last problem is redefining “affordability” into something that is more comprehensive and reflects all the costs and benefits of living in the city.

    Today we talk about “affordability” and mean something, usually, more than simply housing price. Once we bust the iron grip of liberal progressive ideological language and bigotry against private profit, we can start to take our foot off supply by lowering regulatory barriers and, also, incentivizing development rather than taxing it and penalizing the private sector while subsidizing more expensive “affordable” housing.

    These things together, increasing supply and developing a broader concept of affordable city living, can lead us to an outcome we want: people living more sustainably in the city.

    • March 9, 2013


      *Living OUTSIDE the city will likely always be “cheaper” than living elsewhere, especially since the costs of living elsewhere are largely externalized.

    • Morgan permalink
      March 10, 2013

      Redefining housing affordability would be a helpful step in all of this. We’re still working with a quasi-random definition from many decades ago. Having something more accurate and useful to our modern purposes would be great.

      Where is the following coming from? seems a bit combative to me, especially since I’m a liberal, progressive, and ideologically driven advocate who has also been self employed for 20 years.

      “Once we bust the iron grip of liberal progressive ideological language and bigotry against private profit,”

    • Ryan W permalink
      March 14, 2013

      You’re right about supply being a part of the answer, but it is unfair to pin this as progressive regulator issue. I have worked in a community that is quite conservative, and the regulation is quite strong to preserve a quaint exurb despite the pressures of growth. The growth comes, but instead of meeting the demand with supply the market would dictate, the housing size and lot size are pushed to the upper bounds where a 2,000 SF house is thought to be small and a 9,000 SF lot is creeping into “high density.” To go along with this quasi-exclusionary zoning, they also want a strong retail/employment center with a diverse workforce. I don’t know where they expect the diverse workforce to live, but that didn’t stop the council from holding on to dreams of big houses dominating the landscape.

      • Anandakos permalink
        March 19, 2013


        A little of bit of rant residue sneaking in here, eh?

        I lived in Houston for eight years and saw the results of exactly what you’re advocating: sixty story buildings were smacked down right next to cul-de-sac streets with single family housing. Small industrial facilities popped up on previously vacant street corners. The only parts of the city that had any protection for owners were the “island” towns that pre-existed Houston but were later encircled by it.

        The “invisible hand” is not a welcoming hand, buddy. It’s a fist, and you’d better understand that.

        • JJackson permalink
          April 2, 2013

          Roger understands it quite well, and doesn’t care. He makes his living shilling for the real estate sharks.

        • Woodrow permalink
          January 9, 2014

          “Protection for owners”? Maybe the law should stop “protecting” the people who already live in a neighborhood and want to keep others out, and start protecting the people who WANT to live in a neighborhood and can’t afford to because of the fist of exclusionary zoning.

          By an odd coincidence, if you look at you can find apartments in Houston a lot cheaper than any of those listed above.

  3. March 11, 2013

    The issue that needs to be tackled by the public sector is to allow for urban development. The codes do not allow for compact residential development. Mixing uses, reducing required parking, revising land-use/zoning maps, and update the roadway standards, all need to occur first. This can be accomplished in existing centers or in the suburbs.

    Revise the codes, allow the markets to meet the demand, and you will see a stabilization in the markets. Codes and development requirements freeze the market, which results in market spikes. Once you allow for a mix of housing opinions the demand will balance, and you will see these issues relax.

    Start with amending the existing code before you develop a subsidy.

  4. Eugene permalink
    March 14, 2013

    (I’ve recently become interested in this topic so am very much a greenhorn here, and ask with curiously, so…) How to we do this while ensuring we’re not going down the road to another bust? I completely agree we should loosen the strings a bit, but it also seems that developers haven’t be very good about ensuring smart growth. I’m curious how cities can balance these sides of the argument for growth that encourages development while still making sure the city can keep old character alive and build public transit and other infrastructure necessary to ensure its growth is sustainable (economically and environmentally).

    • David Moser permalink
      March 14, 2013

      Eugene, good questions here:
      I think encouraging more housing in the urban core is actually good protection against another bust. Since the 2008 crash, dense, walkable neighborhoods have held their property values much better than elsewhere. there even seems to be a direct correlation between walkscore and property value resiliency.

    • Justin S permalink
      March 18, 2013


      The short of it is that the answers are already pretty well researched yet aren’t politically feasible. There’s a few issues that are easily fixed, like dropping parking requirements… but they’re outliers and usually small pieces. The bigger issue is mentioned here once above: The suburbs have most of their costs deferred. As long as we under-tax/subsidize roads and gasoline, the suburbs will **appear** to make economic sense. As long as we take suburban infrastructure for granted and ignore the efficiencies of urban areas, we won’t be able to really ever fix the shortage of urban areas.

      As if non-competitive economic policies weren’t enough, the problem is even deeper: There’s multiple layers of voting issues tied to the urban debate. As luck would have it, almost all cities vote Dem, while Reps tend to win in the burbs and rural areas. This means that even though every Dem is probably going to need or use a road, very few Republicans will have voter bases willing to support transit, walkability, or anything else “urban.”

      Now we can go into the deep dark reaches for even more awkwardness: Through political quirks of an out-of-date election process, rural voters are wildly over-represented nation-wide (this is why it’s so much more mathematically likely for the R’s to win an election while losing the popular vote than the D’s).

      These 3 things combined lead to an unfixable problem. One half of our entire political spectrum is accidentally profiting from differed economic benefits of being a non-urban populace, while SIMULTANEOUSLY being granted more voting rights than they deserve, for the same reason, while finally also being able to separate what they want and use from what urban people want, though urban people can’t often do the same in return.

      The end result is what we have: A market shortage of urban, transit oriented communities and a giant expanse of cheap non-urban living that often sits vacant or sells for a fraction of what a similar quality walkable property would sell for.

  5. Eric permalink
    March 14, 2013

    I think the writer assumes that low-income people would prefer to live in highly walkable neighborhoods. This may come from their professional disposition to interject low-income residents in upper income areas, which often conflicts with market patterns and simply personal choice.

    • David Moser permalink
      March 14, 2013

      Thanks Eric,
      I try not to make assumptions about where people want to live. Some people like living in the city, some people like the burbs, that’s fine. But low-income people should have the option of living in an urban walkable neighborhoods if they want to, just like rich people do. We know there are manifold social, environmental and public health benefits of living in car-optional, walkable places, and low-income people should have the option of accessing these benefits, should they so desire. Increasingly, as the data show, low income people(and increasingly even middle-income people) don’t have that choice. We have privileged and over-subsidized suburban land-use patterns nationwide for the last 70 years, and the result is suburbs are artificially less expensive. It’s time to balance it out.

  6. cliff hasbrook permalink
    March 14, 2013

    Not all walkable urban neighborhoods are more expensive. My neighborhood, walk score 74, is much cheaper both in rents and purchase prices than the suburbs. . Crime is not a factor as crime rates are down in my city (120,000 pop.)so much so that when I moved to the city from the suburbs, my car insurance went down. Ironic, since I hardly use the car an

  7. March 14, 2013

    Great article because it has tables and is clutter-free in it’s presentation of one of the most pressing problems in Urban Planning today. In fact, when evaluating the growth of cities from the inside out, it is true that in order to grow cities inwards and upwards, instead of creating further sprawl by building outwards, we must attack the regulations in city-cores that restrict developers from building higher and require them to provide a certain amount of parking. In satelite photos of American downtowns, it is apparent that parking has gobbled up a huge share of developable land. This drives up the cost of the rest of the land and creates higher costs for developers of residential real-estate who must comply with parking code-formulas; the costs of which they pass on to the residents. Of cource we understand that inelastic supply coupled with increased demand results in higher costs, the results of which we see in cities today. Can we take the lid off development and really start a building bonanza in our downtowns, resulting in revitalization and allowing our working-class citizens to move back into transit-friendly areas, thus better allocating our resources? Relax the regulations, within reason and assuming the demand is there, and developers will build. And the people will come.

  8. Matt Ritter permalink
    March 14, 2013


    A lot of low-income people SHARE automobiles. For example, you may be a single mother with 2 children living in an apartment. You have no car. But your sister has a car. Or your uncle has a car. Or someone else in your extended family has a car. So you borrow/share their car on weekends to stock up on groceries. (Ever wonder how people buy meat in “food deserts”?)

    So there’s no need for a low-income person to spend 50% of their income on an automobile. They walk and take the bus every day, and borrow cars once or twice a week. That’s the way the world works.

    P.S. Walk Scores from are an absolute JOKE. They’re not even close to being accurate/helpful in most cases. If you want real data on walkability, look at the percentage of people that drive/walk/etc. by zip code from the American Community Survey 2010.

    • David Moser permalink
      March 14, 2013

      Matt, yes many people are able to get by living in a car-dependent neighborhood without a car and just borrowing a car on an as-needed basis. But many people do not have that option and need a car everyday, so many people do, in fact spend 50%+ of their income on a car. It’s a fact.
      And yes, Walkscore’s validity as a measure of walkability is hotly debated. I basically use it for convenience to make a broad brush point. They are also developing a new “Street Smart” Walkscore(which I think is still in beta), which uses a slightly different algorithm and produces slightly different scores:
      This is definitely an in-exact science and a specific walkscore will always be debatable, but it’s a handy tool.

      • Matt Ritter permalink
        March 14, 2013

        Thanks for the good replies. WalkScore’s new beta formula is just as bad. You should check out the US Census survey data on percentages of people who drive to work (vs. other modes of transportation) by zip code, city, and state. It’s an eye-opener. It’s so much better than the Walk Scores. It tells how people really do get around.

        Just to give a quick example, think of a typical early-20th-century urban residential neighborhood filled with bungalows. There are neighborhoods like this in most every major city. The neighborhood is probably bisected by a commercial thoroughfare. And Walk Score will inevitably give this neighborhood a score of 80 or more out of 100 for “very walkable” where “most errands can be done on foot”. Now take a look at reality. Census data shows that 75% to 80% of the people in this neighborhood drive cars to work every day. Look down the street; you’ll see 1 or 2 cars in every driveway. Look down that commercial thoroughfare. See anyone walking? There may be bus stops; but the residents aren’t using them. There may be a Starbucks; but there are 20 cars in its parking lot. Where’s the nearest grocery store? It’s certainly not on the thoroughfare in walking distance from the neighborhood. It’s at least 4 to 6 miles away in some shopping strip in a commercial sector of town. All those “grocery stores” that Walk Score lists in walking distance? They’re convenience stores selling liquor, sodas, chips, snacks, cigarettes, and lotto cards to the residents of the apartments a mile away on the outskirts of the neighborhood (the same folks who ride the bus). Walk Score is fantasy. Use the percentages from the American Community Survey on modes of transportation. They tell a much more accurate story.

        • Steven Howland permalink
          March 15, 2013

          The point of walk score and talking about walkable neighborhoods is about opportunity, not the actual choices people make. Those opportunities are about building in economic elasticity so people have options other than driving when gas prices soar and they can no longer afford it. Your statements about vehicle sharing for poor households is slightly inaccurate. While it is a coping mechanism for some poor households, this is not the majority case. Using the ACS data, you’ll find that most metros still show that a majority of low-income households own their own car. It’s a lower percentage than other income classes, for sure, but still a hefty majority. This is mostly because where they are being restricted to in housing they can afford requires them to own a vehicle whether for commuting to work or for daily errands. Keep in mind as well, that if you look at studies on how people use transportation (ACS only gives data for commute to work), you’ll find that non-work trips are making up a majority and growing percentage of trips and vehicle miles traveled by households. While commuting for work by car may still be high in high walk-score neighborhoods, those same neighborhoods allow for alternative means to get to non-work activities. If we give low-income populations the opportunity to choose to live in the suburbs vs. the city so they have the choice of how close they live to shopping/work, they then have the choice of whether to own a vehicle or not and also how much they drive it. It’s not just a low-income problem either. The way American cities have been developed around the automobile for so long and the way car-ownership has become entrenched into American ideology has instilled the idea that owning a car is just part of life in America. Building neighborhoods, using metrics like walkscore(flawed or not, they’re still better than using just ACS data as they give a better view of what’s on the ground), and continuing the discussion about walkability, housing supply, car ownership, etc. starts to break down those barriers to reform the way we think about where and how we live our daily lives. Just take a look at the study Losing Ground ( by the Center for Neighborhood Technology on examining the combined housing and car ownership costs to get a better idea of why these are important issues.

  9. Barbara Samuels permalink
    March 15, 2013

    This is all well and good from the perspective of Seattle (and other hot market cities like NYC, Boston, SF, DC, etc), but please don’t overgeneralize.

    It is both difficult and unsafe to be poor and trying to raise kids while living in in inner-city Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, etc. The distressed neighborhoods in these weak market cities are very “walkable” except that it isn’t safe to do so and there aren’t any amenities within walking distance. Many neighborhoods have lost 50% of their population over the past 20 years. The problem is not gentrification, it is the lack of a functioning real estate market in the absence of demand. Poor people are not being denied the choice to stay in these distressed neighborhoods — they are being denied the choice to live in suburban neighborhoods where they feel safer and can send their kids to better schools.

    • Jake Wegmann permalink
      March 18, 2013

      I think that that is an important point.

      Although it may be that even within some weak market cities, low-income people are being kept out (via over-regulation) of particular urban neighborhoods that do offer walkable amenities. I’m thinking of places like Queens Village in Philly and Federal Hill in Baltimore. (Detroit, on the other hand, may lack such examples.)

  10. Rich Nafziger permalink
    March 16, 2013

    You really make a great point here David. With two simple charts it is clear that something needs to be done. What’s the next step? How do we get this moving?

  11. Jake Wegmann permalink
    March 18, 2013

    Overall, I think that the author’s linking of suburban (non)walkability and the suburbanization of poverty is very astute and timely.

    Emphasizing these linkages could bring a whole new group of progressive activists (i.e., people primarily concerned about social equity) to the conversation about walkability. Broadening coalitions is always a good thing, even if difficult at first.

    Walkability advocates, undoubtedly, will continue to do great work on making places that are already relatively walkable (like Seattle) even more so. Working towards places that demonstrate the possibilities of walkability is vitally important, and I whole-heartedly support these efforts.

    But the movement towards walkability will also benefit from a focus on the places that are the most egregiously (and shamefully) unwalkable, as the author points out. That, in turn, will lead inevitably to tragic stories like that of Raquel Nelson, the Georgia woman whose child was killed while she was trying to cross a deadly suburban arterial with no crosswalks for blocks in either direction. Stories like those are what can get ordinary people, who have never thought about walkability, off the sidelines on this issue.

  12. March 18, 2013

    Wait a minute, are you suggesting that urban blighted poverty is better than suburban poverty?

    Urban areas across the county lost their economies because of blighted low-income areas in their down towns. At least there is a grocery store not charging five dollars for a half-gallon of milk in the suburbs. There is no real advantage to being able to walk to an urban grocery store that does not exist.

    We have the same problem in metro Atlanta.

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