The Official Online Weekly Newspaper of NAHB
Extensive research by NAHB shows that many of the programs and concepts taking shape under the Obama Administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative are not based on empirical evidence or market realities and propose development patterns for which there may not be demand or available financing.
Since the initiative was announced in the spring of 2009, it has become increasingly clear that a major focus of the effort is on steering development towards existing communities and infrastructure and boosting density to support more transit-oriented development.
The concept is that higher densities and greater use of public transportation will provide people better access to jobs, reduce climate change by reducing car traffic, shorten commuting times and enhance affordability and public health by increasing walking and bike riding.
However, the urban-oriented vision is based on an outmoded planning model that assumes most jobs are in the central city.
Numerous NAHB reports and studies on climate change, density, transit and development — as well as the affordability of housing and transportation — show that the planning issues being tackled by the Administration are complex and involve many trade-offs, many of which are not well understood.
In addition, the criteria and incentives for federal grants to implement these programs do not adequately consider whether the approaches involved are feasible or appropriate for the localities.
The current conflicts playing out in the Chesapeake Bay region between objectives for smart growth and those for stormwater management provide a good case in point.
Under the Sustainable Communities Initiative, the Department of Transportation, Department of Housing and Urban Development and Environmental Protection Agency are working in partnership to focus attention on integrated planning for transportation, land use and housing.
The initiative is implementing the Livability Principles established by the White House, which include:
- Providing more transportation choices to decrease household transportation costs, reduce the nation’s dependence on oil, improve air quality and promote public health
- Expanding location and energy-efficient housing options for people of all ages, incomes, races and ethnicities to increase mobility and lower the combined cost of housing and transportation
- Improve the economic competitiveness of neighborhoods by giving people reliable access to employment centers, educational opportunities, services and other basic needs
- Targeting federal funding toward existing, transit-oriented communities and recycling land to revitalize communities, reduce the costs of public works and safeguard rural landscapes
- Aligning federal policies and funding to remove barriers to collaboration, leverage funding and increase the effectiveness of programs to plan for future growth
- Enhancing the unique characteristics of all communities by investing in healthy, safe and walkable neighborhoods, whether they are located in rural, urban or suburban neighborhoods
These federal planning objectives are being implemented through a variety of grant programs — including the EPA’s Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities program, HUD’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning and Community Challenge Planning grants and DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants.
The partnership so far has helped distribute more than $800 million to numerous local and national planning agencies and organizations.
Funding allocations have been increasing steadily over the past two years.
On Nov. 21, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced 2011 Sustainable Community Grants totaling $96 million to 27 communities and organizations and 29 regional areas.
In just HUD's small portion of this combined federal effort, matching and in-kind contributions bring total public and private investment for this round of grants to more than $211 million.
Although previous regulatory and policy efforts to promote sustainability have been largely voluntary to date and most planning and development approvals are still being determined locally, the criteria and incentives in these new federal programs have become more prescriptive about local land use plans and development review procedures than previous federal planning and technical assistance programs.
Communities are heavily encouraged to use the federal funding to revamp planning and zoning codes and adopt specific planning tools and concepts — such as form-based codes, inclusionary zoning, “complete streets,” a housing and transportation affordability index, LEED for Neighborhood Development, health impact assessments, higher densities, transit-oriented development and mixed-use centers.
In response to the national dialogue on reforming state and local development requirements that has been created by this new federal initiative, NAHB is in the process of compiling its many land use policy and smart growth resources into a “Land Use Toolkit” that will be available to members and local home builders associations.
The association’s goal is to bring the best information to the table as policymakers struggle with these issues, cautioning that concepts that may look sound in theory may turn out otherwise when they are based on faulty assumptions.