Prosperity Watch (Issue 67, No. 1): The Heavy Burden of Housing and Transportation Costs for North Carolinians

Nov. 7, 2016

For working families in North Carolina, housing and transportation costs can make up more than half of total household income, and they become a difficult barrier to getting ahead economically. An interactive index produced by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a national nonprofit focused on urban sustainability and community development, calculates the burden of housing and transportation costs on families across the country. Though housing is normally deemed “affordable” for families when it takes up no more than 30 percent of household income, the addition of transportation costs – the second largest expense in most households – shows a more complete picture of the cost of living in America.

In North Carolina, the county where a family chooses to reside has a significant impact on the amount the family will pay for housing and transportation. A look at six different counties in the state showed stark differences in regards to living affordability.

Families in rural counties, which are defined as counties with a population density of 250 people per square mile or less, bore the brunt of the costs. In Robeson County, for example, where a third of county residents are living in poverty, housing and transportation costs consume a striking 77 percent of the average household income. Catawba County, which is one of the fourteen counties in the state recognized as “Regional City and Suburban,” residents shell out an average of 64 percent of household income to cover the costs of housing and transportation. In urban Mecklenburg county, where the average population density exceeds 750 people per square mile, the combination of housing and transportation costs take up more than half (54 percent) of average household income. Despite being comparatively better off, this number is still high, and it can leave low-income families with fewer resources to pay for the basics like food and medical care.

The high cost of housing and transportation can place low-income families at risk for homelessness, while it keeps others from becoming homeowners. In addition to this, the high cost of commuting to and from work hurts minimum wage workers who are already making too little to afford other basic needs. Our state currently under-invests in housing and transit, but policymakers can halt this trend through policies that expand access to housing and public transportation. 

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