Sixth in an occasional series on the future of housing

Searching for a family house for less than $300,000 in and around the big Macalester-Groveland neighborhood in St. Paul turned up just three options on Edina Realty’s website. The biggest was a three-bedroom place of about 1,590 square feet.

Broaden the search, though, and options popped up that included a much-newer, four-bedroom house of nearly 2,300 square feet. It has a three-car garage and sits in a neighborhood so quiet that it’s clear, just from the placement of a basketball hoop, that kids happily play all day in the street.

One problem is that the bigger house sits 33 miles away from downtown Minneapolis, in the south-suburban community of Elko New Market. And the only way to get to work from there is to drive a car at least part of the way.

Home buyers have long known about this trade-off between cheaper houses and longer commutes, sometimes called the drive-until-you-qualify strategy. Buying cheaply enough to get approved for a mortgage loan means looking in neighborhoods that are probably much farther out from the city center. But commuting with a car isn’t cheap.

Never mind granite countertops and heated floors in the bathroom, the real “dream house” is one that’s both affordable and an easy commute from work. The fact that these houses are so hard for many people to find is a good way to frame our challenge as a region. We don’t have a housing problem; we have a housing and transportation problem.

Adding a lot more housing closer to jobs and entertainment venues in the cities and inner-ring suburbs seems to make sense, but that’s not necessarily thought of as a swell idea by the people who already live there.

In reading through news accounts of battles over density in Edina, St. Paul and elsewhere, a big issue seems to be that neighbors dread a miserable car-traffic snarl as a lot more people arrive home from work in their cars at the same time.

Suggesting that it’s not just cheaper but far more virtuous to use some other way to get around, maybe instead riding a bike into work, only irritates people who have no practical alternative to driving.

That point was made in spades by one of the groups that sprung up to oppose the draft Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan, called Minneapolis for Everyone. Allowing so many new units of housing that it becomes painful to get around neighborhoods with a car unfairly favors the young, able-bodied and childless.

These are the kind of young people who might hop on one of those new electric scooters that have appeared this year, like a plague of garden pests. Just try getting a toddler to day care on the way to work with one of those.

So what’s a better option than adding density in the heart of the metro, since it faces so many barriers? More building on the edge, in places like Elko New Market?

Housing experts have long said that the generation now moving into homeownership, the millennials, don’t seem to favor the kind of big houses accessible only by car that their parents wanted. But a big reason for renting in the city isn’t just a lifestyle choice, it’s that they don’t have the money for the down payment on a house.

A new study once again showed that far fewer millennials owned their own housing compared to baby boomers at the same stage of life. It’s easy to imagine young parents tempted to buy places in the far suburbs, if the cost of living there is cheap enough.

Elko New Market drew some attention recently by pitching itself as a candidate in the state’s proposal to land a second headquarters for In its proposal the community called itself a suburb, although when driving around it’s not obvious what it could be a suburb of, with so much open country around.

It may not have been the most likely Amazon headquarters town, but it sure seems like a comfortable and pleasant place to live, with lots of things to do including riding a new bike trail or taking in a drive-in movie. As of the latest census figures, the median family income was almost $114,000, more than half the adults held at least a college degree and almost no one was living in poverty.

Google said the drive to downtown Minneapolis could be done in 40 minutes, so I set off one morning last week at 7:20 a.m.

Once hooking up with Interstate 35 a few miles away, traffic flowed north briskly until approaching the Minnesota River valley in Burnsville. Then it was nothing but brake lights ahead through the valley.

Traffic slowed dramatically again approaching the Interstate 494 interchange in Bloomington, with a soul-crushing backup of at least a mile in the right lane for anyone trying to get onto 494. Traffic slowed to a crawl again nearing downtown. When I finally drove into the parking ramp, this clear-weather, vacation-season commute had clocked at not quite 58 minutes.

Unless homeowners run the numbers, they may not realize what it costs to make that kind of drive every day.

A car like the entry-level Ford Escape, a middle-of-the-road choice in Minnesota, has a total cost of ownership that exceeds $40,000 over five years. Then there’s parking in downtown Minneapolis, which can easily cost $150 a month or more.

Other estimates of the expense are bigger than my math, which comes to nearly $700 a month. An advocacy group called Strong Towns last year arrived at not quite $800 per year for each mile of commute. That means the cost of a more than 33-mile drive tops $26,000 for the year.

This isn’t an estimate to completely trust, since the analyst seemed to load up the assumptions. But even if misses the mark by a country mile, commuting costs that approach the size of the mortgage payment won’t make a middle-class lifestyle easier to maintain for anyone who is around the local median income.

That 1,590-square-foot house in St. Paul, two short blocks from bus rapid transit, is starting to look cheaper.