"It's time the federal government stopped encouraging sprawl," Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan declared this morning before the Congress for the New Urbanism.
He'd announced moments before that the department would fund $3 billion worth of projects this year alone, and they'd henceforth use "location efficiency" (based on transportation access, residential density, and so on) to score grant applications. They'll also use the criteria of LEED-ND, the brainchild of CNU, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the National Resources Defense Council, Donovan said. It was launched last month to apply the green principles of LEED to urban development.
It could turn out to be the first step in a sea change about how the federal government approaches urbanism, which in turn could lead to the end of sprawl. Or, to paraphrase Nixon, we are all New Urbanists now.
The implications go beyond funding for public housing. Last year, HUD joined the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency in creating the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an effort to think holistically about housing, transportation, and quality of life when awarding tens of billions of dollars in federal funds.
It is an article of faith among advocates for sustainable development that the notion Americans want sprawl is a pernicious myth. Sprawl isn't a function of market forces but the outcome of federal policies dating back to at least the 1950s. "For decades," Donovan said, "the government encouraged sprawl" with freeway construction and a "housing finance system that perpetuated the 'drive until you qualify' myth.
"We learned from the housing crisis that home ownership is not for everyone," he said, but "transportation patterns can push families over the edge. The average family spends half their household budget on housing and transportation -- they have become the two biggest expenditures. Lenders bought into the "drive to qualify" myth as well, not accounting for the costs to buy into these [exurban] areas. Families found themselves driving dozens of miles to work, to buy groceries, to move theaters, spending nearly as much to fill their gas tanks as to pay for their mortgages, in some cases even more."
"This is not about the federal government telling communities what they need to look like -- we tried that before," he added, alluding to the disastrous "urban renewal" policies of the 1960s. "This is people voting with their feet, as they want to move to communities with more transportation options. The President understands this, and place is clearly part of this discussion in a way it hasn't been before." The New Urbanists understood this before anyone else, he told them. "Our challenge is to bring that holistic view into the mainstream," and to "take it to scale."
That includes $100 million in sustainable development grants for cities, another $40 million grant targeted at local communities, and "TIGER II," $600 million in competitive transportation grants that follows last year's $1.5 billion for TIGER I. All of those grants, Donovan said, had been jointly review with DOT and the EPA as partnership, a first. One grant to be approved this way was $25 million for light rail along Woodward Avenue in Detroit. DOT approved the grant after HUD brought to its attention redevelopment that was planned for the route, and the EPA highlighted brownfields that could potentially be recycled into affordable housing.
In the long run, however, ending sprawl (assuming the Obama administration is indeed committed to this plan) will require more than federal grants. It will take convincing lenders that New Urbanism is worth it. As I've written before, Wall Street is willing to finance sprawl because it's easy to calculate the risks involved in making some place look like every place else.
That's why HUD is also spending $10 million to create metrics calculating the "true combined cost of housing and transportation in a way that underwriters could lend to," Donovan said. In effect, HUD wants to define, in hard numbers, what the holistic qualities of New Urbanism are worth, so home owners might borrow against it the way they once did against their McMansions. "Because of the FHA's important, and because we can change our policies, we can help drive the market in the right way."
Image: deejayres on Flickr