Read virtually any promotional brochure or talk to almost any resident about the benefits of Northeast Ohio, and cost of living is likely to rise to the top of the list. With incomes roughly in line with all but the biggest cities in the rest of the country and housing costs low, most working people in Northeast Ohio can live in relative splendor, the argument goes.
The argument is half right.
Housing costs are relatively less expensive in Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown, their suburbs and the spaces in between. At the end of 2015, the median home price in Greater Cleveland was $110,000 and in Greater Akron $93,000, compared with $215,000 in the nation as a whole. Look at our cost of housing in conjunction with incomes, and we see that Greater Clevelanders typically spend 30 percent of their income on housing, and, while that is more than the 27 percent typically spent nationally, it’s less than the 32 percent, 33 percent and 37 percent spent respectively in Greater Boston, Greater Chicago and Greater New York, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
But here’s the dirty little secret: When you include transportation costs, we don’t look so good. Again, according to CNT, Greater Clevelanders typically spend 55 percent of income on housing and transportation combined compared with 40 percent of income typically spent by the nation as a whole. And here is the real kicker: We spend a greater share of our income on housing and transportation than do residents of Greater Boston, Greater Chicago or Greater New York.
How did this happen?
Over the last few decades, our region has expanded outward without the population and job growth that would justify such expansion. As a result, all residents — urban, suburban, rural — have experienced a steep decline in the number of jobs around them. As researched by the Brookings Institution, the number of jobs within a typical commuting distance of Greater Clevelanders fell by 26 percent from 2000 to 2012 — a decline in proximate jobs measurably worse than anywhere else in the U.S.
This expansion outward without job or population growth has made effective public transportation challenging, and, as a larger community, we haven’t shown much of an appetite to address this challenge. Less than 1 percent of Ohio’s state transportation dollars go toward public transit. The state is 14th in the nation in terms of transit ridership, but its investment in public transportation ranks 36th (out of 46 states that provide funds for public transit). We spend 63 cents per person, dramatically below other large states like Illinois and Pennsylvania, which spend more than $60 and $80 per person, respectively.
Why is all this a big deal? Aren’t we just witnessing consumer preference and market forces at work? Maybe. (And arguably, no. We incentivized this out of migration, but that’s another topic for another day.) More to the point here, the combination of our growth patterns and lack of transit options come with significant consequences. Not only are our residents facing comparatively higher costs of living, but this geographic disconnect means people are cut off from jobs, and businesses are cut off from talent. Consider that 25 percent of Cleveland households don’t own a car; they are stuck in a never-ending cycle of “No car, no job. No job, no car.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love our community and believe it stacks up against any in the world. But we need to wise up fast and seriously address issues of worker mobility, or we could be creating big trouble over the long term for our region’s competitiveness.
How do we fix this? We need to worry about getting jobs to people and people to jobs. This starts with smarter development — think targeted investment in job hubs and job corridors throughout the region, particularly those closer to where concentrations of people live or those that leverage transportation assets. The Opportunity Corridor in Cleveland and the 422 Corridor in the Mahoning Valley are two notable examples that need support. We also need to bring people to where jobs are now, through increased state investment in public transit or through emerging transportation models being piloted by Uber, Chariot, Bridj, Lyft and others. For all of this, we need to call upon our policymakers to ensure the necessary infrastructure and funding.
So let’s start today designing tomorrow’s promotional brochure — the one that talks about a more connected community that ensures residents have affordable transportation options and easy access to growing job hubs, and employers can find and attract the talent they need.