A recent Brookings Institute funded study found that Forest Park is the most affordable suburb in the Chicagoland area ” or at least it was six years ago.

The study, conducted by the development research group Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), did not focus on the number of affordable homes in town or the percentage of homes classified as affordable. Instead, researchers focused on the 2,148 households in Forest Park in the $20,000 to $50,000 income range during the last US census, attempting to determine what percentage of their income those households spent on housing and transportation combined.

“[The study used] a regression model where we factor in neighborhood characteristics, household characteristics, and things like walkability, services in the neighborhood, proximity to jobs, block size ” all those things determine how much people spend on transportation,” said Carrie Makarewicz of CNT.

The emphasis on transportation, researchers say, is particularly relevant considering skyrocketing gas prices and the movement of low income residents away from urban areas and into surrounding suburbs in pursuit of lower rents.

Transportation, according to the Brookings Institute’s Web site, accounts for the second highest portion of the average American’s budget after housing, with those making the median income typically spending just over 19 percent of their money on getting around.

The study used a method called the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, developed by the Brookings Institute and first used to study the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

“The index is important because it tells an alternative story of affordability than we’ve become accustomed to hearing,” said Center for Neighborhood Technology CEO Kathryn Tholin. “Take a place like Harvard in McHenry County. The real estate pages are full of 2- and 3-bedroom homes in Harvard for under $150,000. That sounds affordable, right? But factor in transportation costs, which are among the highest in the region at over $14,000 a year, and it becomes substantially less affordable. “

Overall, Forest Park tied the city of Chicago for most affordable in the Chicagoland area.

Other suburbs among the most affordable were Hometown, Harwood Heights, Oak Park, Cicero, Norridge, North Riverside, Rosemont and Elmwood Park.

When only housing costs were considered, Forest Park did not break the top ten, with Rockdale, Coal City and Thornton ranking as most affordable.

Forest Parkers in the study’s income range spent 47 percent of their income on transportation and housing combined. Those in the $20,000 to $35,000 range, the study found, spend 54.7 percent of their income on housing and transportation (32.1 percent on housing, 22.6 percent on transportation) while those in the $35,000 to $50,000 range spent 21.9 percent of their income on housing and 16.4 percent on transportation for a total of 38.3 percent.

Those Forest Parkers in the $50,000 to $75,000 income range, researchers found, spend 17.9 percent of their income on housing and 12.1 percent on transportation. Though this income range was not factored into the findings, the 30 percent total for that group was also the lowest of all the communities studied.

The obvious weakness of the findings in terms of their relevance to the current housing market, Makarewicz admitted, was that they were based largely on six-year-old data. Few, if any, of the other communities deemed among the most affordable have experienced the kind of growth that Forest Park has enjoyed since 2000.

“Fortunately, you haven’t lost any of your transportation in Forest Park, but housing affordability has probably been diminished,” she acknowledged.