Want a peek at the future? Check out the brightly painted buildings at High Point, a newly rehabilitated neighborhood in Seattle, Wash.

Once a distressed public housing site, the nearly 1,700 densely developed new residences at High Point are close to mass transit, employers, and services. They are also energy efficient and affordable to people earning a mix of incomes. The project earned a 2007 National Award for Smart Growth from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

High Point could be a model of things to come, according to Ron Sims, former King County Executive and a local official who championed the redevelopment of High Point. Sims is now a part of a growing set of experts in the administration of President Barack Obama pledging to support—and focus federal funding on—a more efficient kind of development.

Obama and his Administration’s commitment to sustainable development represents a sea change in the nation’s dialogue on planning for development, according to groups ranging from the Urban Land Institute to the American Planning Association. In June 2009, three major federal agencies—Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the EPA—announced their Partnership for Sustainable Communities along with six guiding “livability principles” that will coordinate federal transportation, environmental protection, and housing investments at the agencies.


Promises, Promises

“We need to fundamentally change the way we look at metropolitan development," said President Obama at a roundtable on metropolitan policy on July 13, 2009. "For too long, federal policy has actually encouraged sprawl and congestion and pollution, rather than quality public transportation and smart, sustainable development.  And we've been keeping communities isolated when we should have been bringing them together.”

“HUD can help develop communities that are livable, walkable and sustainable,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at his Senate confirmation hearing. “By joining up transportation and housing, HUD can give families the choice to live closer to where they work and, in the process, cut transportation costs.”

“We are going to have to densify and locate jobs much closer to where people are living,” said HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims, who has explicitly addressed the need to build housing at greater densities than the one-dwelling-unit-per-acre maximum allowed by the zoning codes of many towns and suburban “villages.” “We cannot continue to build out America,” said Sims, who is in charge of HUD's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.


Money on the Table

The Obama Administration is pledging to put funding behind its sustainable development promises, and huge amounts of money are involved. 

Changes in formulas used to set federal funding levels could have tremendous implications. For example, by promising to promote “transportation choices” that reduce our “dependence on foreign oil,” DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is effectively promising to shift his agency’s focus away from cars and highways. In recent years, about 85% of DOT’s spending has supported highways, with only 15% going to mass transit projects.

New mass transit projects would create opportunities for transit-oriented development, potentially including significant affordable housing, according to housing advocates like Bill Kelly, president of Stewards for Affordable Housing for the Future.

However, old ways die hard in Washington. Powerful interest groups, from the American Trucking Association to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, are deeply invested in the business of building highways. Some of these groups may initially oppose changes to DOT’s budget, even though some of their members may eventually benefit from increased spending on mass transit.

“The people that benefit from the status quo will fight to keep it,” says Tom Murphy, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “The people that will benefit from the new order aren’t clear how it will benefit them.”

Advocates for the status quo won the first round of the contest: infrastructure funding in the 2009 stimulus bill largely followed the standard division between highway spending and mass transit spending as the Administration sacrificed a full discussion of Smart Growth priorities in favor of getting the bill quickly through Congress.

“It was a disappointment,” says Murphy.


Competitive Funding

No matter what happens in Congress, officials can funnel large amounts of funding to sustainable development. To do that, agencies like HUD will rely on point-scored competitions to put its livability principles into practice, says Sims.

Sims proposed that HUD score applications for funding based on attributes such as carbon emissions a development would create, including emissions associated with transportation. Also, when HUD scores the affordability of planned housing projects, the agency could include the likely cost of transportation for the residents as part of the cost of the housing. Health outcomes could also become a part of the way in which funding applications are scored.

“The built environment is incredibly important to health outcomes,” says Sims, referring to a study by the University of Washington that links pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods to increased physical activity and better health. “We can predict morbidity by zip code,” he says.

The federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities rewards local governments that plan for sustainable development through federal programs, for example, federal funding for metropolitan planning organizations. The kind of planning rewarded follows the federal Partnership’s livability principles, says Sims. He envisions the federal government offering a “toolkit” of potential planning tools to local governments, ranging from variable tolling on highways depending on the distance traveled to modified zoning requirements. Local governments would be able to take or leave these planning tools based on their area’s needs and the funding programs they wish to access.

Coordination between government agencies and existing programs has increased the effectiveness of government programs in the past, according to Sims. For example, in 2002, the U.S. Interagency Council of Homelessness announced a plan to coordinate existing homeless prevention programs in a bold plan to end chronic homelessness in 10 years—with just $35 million of its own new federal funding. Many homeless advocates were incredulous at first. But in the next few years, more than 300 towns and counties around the nation worked with the Council to create local plans to end chronic homelessness by bringing officials and existing programs together. Though short-term, economic homelessness continues to rise, several cities now report falling numbers of people who have been out on the streets for years.

“You don’t always have to create new money to get things done,” says Sims. “You use existing money. Everyone is now synchronizing their programs.”

Developers who build affordable housing are carefully tracking the pronouncements coming from Washington. For many, the federal principles match Smart Growth business plans based around infill housing that they have adopted over the last 5 to 10 years.

“We already do this—these are among our core principles,” says Mark Holmes, vice president of portfolio management for Mercy Housing. The federal principles are good news to Holmes: new coordination among agencies could help developers finance projects with funding from a variety of federal, state, and local agencies. Developers could also benefit if federal incentives motivate local governments to allow more affordable housing developments.


Livability Principles

The federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities has established six livability principles that will act as a foundation for interagency coordination:

  • Provide more transportation choices. Develop safe, reliable and economical transportation choices to decrease household transportation costs, reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote public health.
  • Promote equitable, affordable housing. Expand location- and energy-efficient housing choices for people of all ages, incomes, races, and ethnicities to increase mobility and lower the combined cost of housing and transportation.
  • Enhance economic competitiveness. Improve economic competitiveness through reliable and timely access to employment centers, educational opportunities, services, and other basic needs by workers as well as expanded business access to markets.
  • Support existing communities. Target federal funding toward existing communities—through such strategies as transit-oriented, mixed-use development and land recycling—to increase community revitalization, improve the efficiency of public works investments, and safeguard rural landscapes.
  • Coordinate policies and leverage investment. Align federal policies and funding to remove barriers to collaboration, leverage funding, and increase the accountability and effectiveness of all levels of government to plan for future growth, including making smart energy choices such as locally generated renewable energy.
  • Value communities and neighborhoods. Enhance the unique characteristics of all communities by investing in healthy, safe, and walkable neighborhoods—rural, urban, or suburban.

Bendix Anderson writes for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities.