Does the rightward swing in national politics spell curtains for the Obama administration’s push for green agendas and sustainability in America’s cities and neighborhoods?
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan argues no—and cites congressional action to prove his case.
The hard-fought budget compromise for 2011 protects, for example, two stellar programs, both of which have triggered hundreds of competitive applications.
One is the Sustainable Communities Initiative, which helps localities and federal departments tie together and improve their efforts in housing, transportation and environmental decisions at the regional and grass-roots level. The program is to receive $100 million for this fiscal year.
Another save, with $528 million appropriated, is the highly popular TIGER program of transportation-related grants to cities and regions that come up with creative ways to rebuild their economies through such steps as safer streets, reduced carbon emissions and greater community livability.
Both programs had been zeroed out in the House Republicans’ initial budget proposal for the year.
So why, with many other programs cut deeply—for example, the Community Development Block Grants and the Hope VI mixed-income public housing program—did some initiatives survive in the hotly debated final budget?
Donovan’s claim: Both the Sustainable Communities Initiative and TIGER have generated “remarkably broad and deep support, tapping a wellspring of support in communities across the country.” Applications, he reports, have flowed in from equal portions of Republican and Democratic districts.
There had been initial congressional concern, Donovan acknowledged, that “the federal government was coming in to plan communities.” But now, he says, “there’s growing Capitol Hill recognition that the programs actually enable local vision to come to fruition.” Among the crucial supporters, he said, are local business leaders and development groups that see the grants as a way for their cities or regions to thrive and draw young people—fuel for an economy in which “capital follows people” rather than the reverse.
And then there’s the issue of a more efficient economic landscape. “We’re reaching the limits of the automotive city and metro area,” says Donovan, noting that “the costs of commuting and time lost in congestion are five times higher than 25 years ago.” He believes this undergirds the case for conscious federal policy to encourage compactness, including addressing the needs of regions with shortages of affordable—especially rental—housing.
Can this case sell politically? Realism says there’s a set of interests that benefit financially from sprawling development because it fuels demand for the oil and vehicles they sell. Their cause is taken up by conservative think tanks all too ready to label compactness scenarios as unwarranted government dictation. Financial support for the right-leaning policy groups taking such a stand, reports SourceWatch (part of the Center for Media and Democracy), comes from such organizations as the American Petroleum Institute, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Ford and General Motors.
But Donovan—like his colleague Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood—expresses optimism that more efficient, less energy-demanding forms of development will be imperatives in a world of $4-and-higher gasoline and with the need for radically “greener” development.
“We need to drive many other federal investments in the same direction” as the Sustainable Communities Initiative, says Donovan. He describes a “preferred sustainability status” system that grants extra points for greener proposals, which are mutually supportive because they’re connected by physical location, in grant applications to federal agencies for housing, transportation, infrastructure, environmental protection, perhaps even school funding.
The multipurpose idea is encapsulated in a current proposal from New Orleans to remake its troubled Iberville public housing area. The idea is to create a more attractive, sustainable neighborhood through a richer variety of midrise apartment buildings and townhouses. To enhance prospects for residents, there will be a new transit line connecting them to jobs at a major new Veterans Affairs hospital. And the government will demolish an expressway link that’s long separated the neighborhood from the surrounding city.
Donovan is meanwhile championing a new PowerSaver mortgage product that the Federal Housing Administration is targeting for “green” retrofits of existing homes. Qualified homeowners are able to get loans of up to $25,000 to make energy-efficient improvements they select, such as new or added insulation, duct sealing, replacement doors and windows, water heaters and solar panels.
“PowerSaver hits on all cylinders by helping credit-worthy homeowners finance these upgrades, cut their energy bills and boost the local job market in the process,” Donovan asserts. At least 18 national and local lenders will make the loans but be required to have significant “skin in the game” because the FHA guarantee will cover no more than 90 percent of the loan in case of a default.
Within weeks, says Donovan, HUD will unveil a multifamily equivalent to PowerSaver. The clear message: Don’t expect the administration to let up on its green, sustainability push anytime soon.
E-mail Neal Peirce.
© 2011, The Washington Post Writers Group