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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.