Two federal departments collaborating? An unnatural act?
Maybe. But if you care what kind of neighborhood you live in, or whether you or your kids will be able to make ends meet, then check out this burgeoning departmental romance.
Two of President Obama's Cabinet secretaries– Shaun Donovan of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Ray LaHood of Transportation (DOT) –are promising to make their bureaucracies work together. And not just in stuffy interdepartmental meetings in Washington, but in crafting their programs as they impact communities nationwide.
For federal departments, historically known for working in their own "silos," largely oblivious to one another, it's a nearly revolutionary step.
HUD funds have traditionally gone for public or affordable housing with little regard to whether it's located accessible to public transit or jobs. Conversely, major road or transit projects have received federal transportation assistance with an apparently blind eye to whether they connect working class people to jobs or serve housing projects.
But a truly "livable community," insists Rep. John Olver (Mass.), reflects today's popular concept of "transit-oriented development" by linking "the transportation mobility of the old and young alike with affordable housing, shopping, job opportunities, and green infrastructure."
Olver, who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee controlling both the HUD and DOT budgets, has been championing closer housing-transportation collaboration. As America's metro regions expand in population, he argues, the housing-job-transit links are vital– "especially for people without cars, or where cars are as much a pain in the a** as a benefit."
So Olver could barely contain his enthusiasm when both Donovan and LaHood appeared together before his panel, promising to mobilize their departments for joint approaches.
In some metro areas, said Donovan, low-income workers are obliged to drive distances to jobs spend more for transportation than housing, "posing a particular burden, inhibiting wealth creation, hindering home ownership and pushing family budgets closer to the brink." And it's not just a city issue, he added: more lower-income tenants now live in suburbs than city centers.
Fostering livable communities, LaHood said, is a key aspect of President Obama's urban policy agenda because "how a community is designed–its roads, transit systems and walkways–has a huge impact on its residents."
Today, he noted, a third of Americans live in neighborhoods without sidewalks and almost half of households say they lack access to public transportation. Yet mixed-use neighborhoods with highly-connected streets arranged in small blocks, he argued, "promote mobility for all users, whether they are walking, bicycling, riding transit or driving motor vehicles."
The Cabinet secretaries said they're launching a "Sustainable Communities Initiative" with a joint fund to encourage metro regions, through a competitive process, to develop integrated housing, land use and transportation plans, focused also on energy saving and greenhouse gas reduction.
Ironically, their partnership is flowering before the new White House Office on Urban Affairs, expected to push such initiatives, has moved beyond a planning stage. But a White House spokesman confirmed the HUD-DOT collaboration can be a prototype for concerted goal-setting across agencies.
In Chicago, there's rejoicing in the offices of a scrappy 30-year old research and advocacy group, the Center for Neighborhood Technology–a pioneer in demonstrating how residents' combined housing and transportation costs can be reduced in transit-served neighborhoods. It's a "new day in Washington," exult leaders Scott Bernstein and Kathryn Tholin, as CNT research and ideas area are poised to be "incorporated into the framing of the Obama administration's urban policy."
But critical tests loom on how quickly the new approaches are grasped and implemented through the ranks of the HUD and DOT bureaucracies, contends public administration expert Kent Watkins, a key promoter of the new approach. He notes that multi-billion dollar initiatives, including at least $8 billion for DOT and $9 billion in HUD stimulus spending, are currently "going out the door" without instructions to put a premium on joint transportation and housing initiatives.
But focus on reform will keep building this year with debate on reauthorization of the federal government's basic transportation program. And even AASHTO–the American Assn. of State Highway and Transportation Officials, historically known as the "big roads" crowd–is making new moves. It wants to double–to $100 million a year–a decade-old federal initiative, DOT's Transportation, Community and System Preservation Program, to help states and local governments accomplish "smarter growth," more compact development.
And why? "States now recognize that sprawl–the cost of the current system–will eat us alive," says AASHTOExecutive Director John Horsley. He wants to see the DOT program enlarged with expanded incentives for local and regional bodies to come up with smart combined land use-transportation solutions.
The bottom line's clear: albeit with fits and starts, radical change is brewing in how Washington impacts growth and development of America's communities.