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Exploring the Elements of More-Livable Neighborhoods

houses, homes, housing, suburb, residentialNeighborhoods with more housing choices—a healthy mix of owner-occupied homes, single-family rentals, and apartments, for example — offer a better quality of life, a study shows.

Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) along with AARP's Public Policy Institute authored a new study exploring elements that constitute neighborhood livability.

"We found that the most livable neighborhoods offer the most diverse set of housing options, including multifamily and rental opportunities as well as single-family and owner-occupied homes," said Jennifer Molinsky, the research associate and lecturer who co-authored the report. "Yet housing also tends to be more expensive in the most livable places, which could pose a barrier to lower- and middle-income households."

The study also found that high livability neighborhoods also have the highest share of renter-occupied housing at 44%, compared to 23% in the lowest-livability locations.

AARP's researchers measure several housing-related metrics—as well as neighborhood features, transportation, environment, health, engagement, and opportunity—to determine a livability score.

The most livable neighborhoods also had the highest median rents ($1160) and the highest median housing values ($323,000).

The higher the community is on the livability spectrum, the fewer low-cost rentals exist—that means, for example, 47% of rentals in low-livability areas are less than $800/month, while less than 30% of rentals go for under $800 in higher-livability burgs.

The share of lower-cost rental units falls as one moves up the livability spectrum: while 47% of rentals in the lowest livability quintile rent for less than $800 per month, the share falls to less than 30% in the highest quintile.

Not a surprise, the researchers say, median incomes are higher in the places with the highest overall scores in the index, and, of some concern is that low-income older adults—those earning less than $30,000 per year—are overrepresented in neighborhoods with the lowest median housing prices and incomes.

The purpose of JCHS's research is to pinpoint potential public policy enhancements when it comes to housing. In this case, they say there are a number of policy implications that emerge.

"While neighborhoods that score highest on the livability spectrum tend to have the most housing types, expanding access to these locations means expanding income-restricted options, such as homes developed through Low Income Housing Tax Credits, Section 202 housing for older adults, inclusionary housing policies, and other federal, state, and local affordable housing programs," noted co-author and research associate Whitney Airgood-Obrycki. "Greater rental assistance to low-income older adults can help as well."

Policies and programs to help older Americans remain in their homes even when housing costs increase will be critical. Older homeowners might benefit from programs supporting home repairs and property tax abatements. Renters need increased tenant protections and rental assistance, and all households could use assistance with utility bills. Low-cost loan and grant programs can help older adults modify their homes to accommodate changing physical needs, while visitability policies can encourage accessibility in new housing going forward, the researchers suggest.

"Together, improving housing affordability, accessibility, and choice can help build more livable communities," the authors noted, "helping more people live in the places they prefer—affordably, securely, and safely housed."

About Author: Christina Hughes Babb

Christina Hughes Babb is a reporter for DS News and MReport. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, she has been a reporter, editor, and publisher in the Dallas area for more than 15 years. During her 10 years at Advocate Media/Dallas Magazine, she published thousands of articles covering local politics, real estate, development, crime, the arts, entertainment, and human interest, among other topics. She has won two national Mayborn School of Journalism Ten Spurs awards for nonfiction, and has penned pieces for Texas Monthly, Salon.com, Dallas Observer, Edible, and the Dallas Morning news, among others.
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