Good Luck Finding Affordable Housing in a Walkable Area With Decent Schools

An analysis by Redfin shows the combo is the home-buying equivalent of a needle in a haystack.
The intersection of 22nd Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW in the West End neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (Photo: Josh/Wikipedia)
Jan 28, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Affordability, walkability, and proximity to high-performing schools—real estate agents have long known that this is the Americans home-buying trinity. An analysis released Wednesday by national real estate brokerage firm Redfin, however, reveals that finding that combination in the nation’s most populous cities has become a significant challenge.

After analyzing housing prices, walkability rankings, and school-quality ratings, Redfin found that only 14 percent of neighborhoods—24 of 170 areas—in the 20 largest cities in the United States meet all three criteria.

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Nope, none of the neighborhoods are in red-hot housing markets such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. Instead, Redfin’s rankings are dominated by locations in Seattle and Washington, D.C. (four of the top 10 are in Seattle, and three are in D.C.).

University District, a neighborhood about five miles north of downtown Seattle, took the top spot. The community, which is adjacent to the University of Washington campus, has a balanced mix of housing, received a Walk Score of 91 out of 100, and has a Great Schools rating of 7.8 out of 10.

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West End, a neighborhood in D.C. adjacent to Georgetown University and DuPont Circle, came in second. Redfin’s analysis found it has a balanced mix of housing, a Walk Score of 95, and a Great Schools rating of 6.5. Adams Morgan in D.C. ranked third, and two other Seattle neighborhoods rounded out the top five.

Redfin started its analysis by checking home sale price data from July 2013 through June 2015. It then used median family income data from the 2014 American Community Survey to figure out which neighborhoods have affordable homes for sale. Given that housing prices in most major cities have soared into the stratosphere in recent years, finding places where homes are affordable wasn’t easy.

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“A home was considered affordable if 28 percent of the local median family income could cover the monthly mortgage and principal payment, assuming the buyer put 20 percent down and took out a 30-year loan with a four percent interest rate,” explains the Redfin blog.

Because a neighborhood might be expensive overall but might still have hidden gems that won’t make people cry when their monthly mortgage bill arrives, the company also looked at areas that have what it calls a balanced mix of both high- and lower-priced houses available. Even with that, Redfin found that only 170 neighborhoods met its price barometer.

It then ranked those neighborhoods according to their Walk Score, a measure of how pedestrian-friendly an area is. The final step was to rank the neighborhoods according to data from the website Great Schools, which uses a combination of parent reviews and standardized test score data to rate K–12 campuses.

But what might be disheartening to would-be home buyers is that the communities that made the cut aren’t affordable unless folks earn a hefty salary. The median home price in University District is about $620,000, and roughly 57 percent of families living in the neighborhood earn more than $100,000. Data on the other neighborhoods in the top 10 tell a similar story.

While analysts continue to wring their hands about the housing bubble, improving walkability in cities and boosting the quality of schools could also help home buyers find what they’re looking for. After all, Boston has a balanced mix of housing prices and is highly walkable, but Redfin found that the city’s public schools had below-average Great Schools ratings.

“There just aren’t enough of these kinds of neighborhoods for everyone who’s looking for an affordable home,” concluded the study authors.