Affordable Housing in Walkable Neighborhoods


The 8th + Howard/SoMa Studios development in San Francisco, CA is home to a variety of residents: young people, artists, veterans, immigrants, and families. The development includes 162 units of affordable housing. Residents don’t need cars to reach retail, services, and transit; reduced parking requirements freed up space for on-site retail, including an organic market on 8th Street.
Image courtesy of Brian Rose and David Baker + Partners Architects

Affordable apartments at 8th + Howard/SoMa Studios, overlooking a calm interior courtyard.
Image courtesy of Brian Rose and David Baker + Partners Architects


Imagine an ideal walkable neighborhood. Your vision probably includes tree-lined streets where people can easily stroll to locally owned shops and groceries, parks to play and meet, and wide, safe sidewalks where kids walk to school. But where does affordable housing fit into this pretty picture?

In the U.S., no one has any idea how many affordable housing units are located in walkable neighborhoods. Emily Talen and Julia Koschinsky are determined to change that with their research project—an ambitious, national quantitative study that will show the neighborhood context of all affordable housing.

Talen, a professor of urban planning and geography at Arizona State University (ASU), and Koschinsky, an ASU research director, both highly prize walkability. Indeed, it’s the underpinning to their research. “In my mind, the vision is to have neighborhoods across America that are walkable, compact, and socially diverse—in other words, some part of them is affordable,” says Talen.

Many share her view. Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute, a sustainability think-tank, writes, “Compact, walkable communities—the opposite of poorly planned sprawl—are the solution to some of our biggest shared challenges, from childhood obesity to social isolation, from crash deaths to disappearing farmland, from the high price of gas to the architectural blight of strip development.”

“They’re even one of our most powerful weapons against climate change—they conserve fossil fuels like nobody’s business,” he continues, because “it takes effort to burn gasoline when everything is so close to your front door.”

But while that’s the goal, Talen believes that “we’re failing on that on all different kinds of models.”

It’s not easy to point to a single reason why. The problem is a web of interrelated issues that is difficult to untangle. First of all, walkability isn’t just about having neighborhood grocery stores, schools, and services. As Talen explains, walkability also means “a pedestrian environment is healthy and robust.” So residents must both have good places nearby and also feel safe walking or biking to them. Truly walkable neighborhoods shouldn’t be racially segregated, nor should there be high levels of crime. Additionally, public transit should be readily available.

Yet when all these factors are in place, the area often becomes unaffordable—and upscale residents don’t want low-income housing projects in their backyards. “Many places designed around walkability, such as Seaside, Florida, become enclaves for the wealthy,” says Talen. “There are no regular people there. We want real places with a whole mix of people.” The national housing policies of the past thirty years—such as HOPE VI and the Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing (MTO) program—had the admirable goals of moving people out of dense areas of urban poverty and into mixed-income neighborhoods. But the result, Talen says, is often that poor people were shuttled into big-box suburbia, ill-served by transit and with no walkable areas in sight.

Talen and Kochinsky’s research is a first step towards truly integrating walkable neighborhoods—socially, economically, and racially. “If we find out that 80% of affordable housing is not walkable, that’s a problem,” says Talen. “Or, if we find out affordable housing is walkable, but crime-ridden, that’s a problem, too.” Using a combination of tools, including Walk Score, census data, and housing values, the pair will develop a series of six to eight policy papers, as well as interactive maps showing all affordable housing across the nation. Funded with a HUD grant of $500,000 over two years, the findings will be posted next year on a website called Walkable Neighborhoods.

“We see our research as a radical policy-making tool used by anyone involved in affordable housing, from urban planners to nonprofits to community land trusts,” says Talen. It will be a valuable tool for helping builders, planners, developers, non-profits and the government provide walkable housing to everyone—not just those who can afford it.