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The 52-Cent Case for ‘Sustainability’

Neal Peirce / Dec 04 2011

For Release Sunday, December 4, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce“Sustainability.” It’s 14 letters, six syllables. Small wonder many people blanch when they read or hear the word. Some may ask — “Is it something about the environment?”

For clarity and to stress the timeliness of their work, the managers of the Obama administration’s “Sustainable Communities” program are switching strategies. Competitive planning grants for cities and regions are still the top goals. But instead of talking first about more efficient land use, transit or town planning, the new focus is now on raw economics.

Check the 52 cent figure, they say. Research shows that for every dollar the average American family has to spend, 52 cents is taken up right away for housing and transportation. That means everything else gets squeezed, sometimes dangerously. And not the least, such essentials as food and clothing.

So what’s a promising cure? It’s clearly to push the 52 cents figure down by helping workers and families gain easier, more affordable access to jobs and schools. And that does dictate that communities pivot away from yesterday’s sprawl patterns, embracing instead such smart development strategies as housing closer to real work centers, homes closer to schools, and transit services to help households spend less on car travel.

Plus, it means a need to supply more compact, efficiently located housing units as American family sizes keep shrinking and the population ages.

Clearly, more and more local communities “get” the saliency of this approach. Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, cites the outpouring of interest in HUD’s must recent Sustainable Communities nationwide competition, announced Nov. 21. There were eight times as many applicants as awardees, $500 million in funding requests but only $96 million to distribute among all winners.

Significantly, Donovan noted, this awards process is evoking growing interest among chambers of commerce and economic development corporations that are glad to become “core partners” in the local applicant coalitions.

The grants — 27 for individual communities, 29 for regions — are spread from from Boston to Denver to Seattle, from the deeply depressed city of Opa-locka, Fla., to heavily rural Fremont County, Idaho. All provide federal stimulus money to challenge local areas to create high quality, interconnected housing, transportation and workforce development plans which show clear potential economic payoffs.

Each project has to incorporate clear fact-based assessments; all are followed closely in implementation by the HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, headed by Shelley Poticha. “We’re unusual for the federal government,” notes Poticha, “by investing in proactive strategies to shape the future and not just the historic pattern of federally-supported capital projects.”

The HUD effort doesn’t stand alone: it’s one section of the Obama administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities (www.sustainablecommunities.gov). It’s an initiative that works to coordinate smart growth, sustainable and economically promising initiatives and policies across historically rigid departmental lines. Encouraged and endorsed by the White House Domestic Policy Council, the three official players are HUD, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Key personnel from the three agencies meet not just occasionally but every week to mesh their policies and approaches. They’re regularly joined by the Agriculture Department, which isn’t officially part of the partnership yet with $20 billion a year in rural development is a significant player. Transportation adds heft, especially through its series of highly competitive “TIGER” grants for local transportation projects that are designed both for sustainability and high economic impact.

Ideally, all these efforts would be praised and advanced by Congress as harbingers of a smart and engaged federal government, one that dictates less and listens more to communities’ needs, encourages local ingenuity, and that helps to position the nation for a stronger joined economy and livable communities to come.

Sadly, it’s not happening. While Congress is willing to keep TIGER rolling with $500 million for the next fiscal year (enough to fund about 10 percent of its applications), the HUD Sustainable Communities program is in deep trouble.

Evidence: House Republicans originally prepared legislative language that actually would forbid a dollar of government expenditure if the related federal departments were to talk, plan, research, or manage grants cooperatively. And in relation to what activities? The language left no doubt on it intent: specified cited was “interagency coordination on livable communities or sustainable development.”

Geoffrey Anderson, president of Smart Growth America, commented: “What business would ever tell its units not to talk to each other?”

Later, cooler heads prevailed and that language was dropped by the House committee. But still, the final House-Senate conference report, while it did endorse the concept of interdepartmental coordination to integrate housing and transportation, failed to fund HUD’s Sustainable Communities program awards for the next year. Poticha’s office will be able to administer the grants already made, but not to issue new ones.

There’s just slim hope that funding will be restored in future years. Which would be sad — the demise of one of the most imaginative federal system innovations in many decades.

But then again, sometimes there’s an idea just too good to stay dead long.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

4 Comments

  1. Posted December 4, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Top drawer report as usual and thank you Neal.

    Of course what is better than Smart Growth is No Growth. As was said by many experts in 1974, when we reached 200 million, ‘there is no advantage to the country to go to 300 million.’

    Now we are willy-nilly, via mostly legal immigration of unskilled labor, going for 400 and again, where is the advantage for us already here?

  2. Sandra L Streifel
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    There will be growth and change in the shape of American communities and regions. Even assuming this project or other sustainable community projects or car to public transit priority plans never emerge, increasing cost of commuting will make present communities unlivable. There is a demand for “village” type living around transit hubs, with businesses and high density residential in walking distance of high speed train station, for example.

  3. Marc Brenman
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    If the Administration really wanted to do something good about the amount Americans pay for housing, it would work harder to fix the foreclosure crisis. The obvious solution is to permit bankruptcy judges and judges adjudicating foreclosures to adjust mortgages and rates downward, to reflect actual market value. But the Administration did not pursue such active solutions.
    The Administration’s sustainability and livability efforts are good ones, but they have no teeth. A good place to start is more civil rights law and environmental justice enforcement effort. Enforce the laws that are in place, promptly and equitably.

  4. Posted December 5, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Neal, as you know I wake up every morning seeking evidence of evolution. And here in ultra-conservative Salt Lake City that can be daunting some days. But our work with Shaun and Shelley as part of our HUD Sustainability Grant is showing clear evidence of evolution, so much so that a story by Jim Russell appeared in today’s Bloomberg News.

    If we can make progress here people can do it anywhere. Remember when you came to Salt Lake City nearly 20 years ago to help us raise the right questions about growth in our fragile oasis? Now, 20 years later, change is tangible.

    Take a look at Jim’s article here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-05/walk-bike-to-work-in-salt-lake-s-answer-to-suburban-nightmares.html

    Onward!