Shelley Poticha, director of HUD's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.
Shelley Poticha, director of HUD's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.

In 2009, President Obama challenged his cabinet agencies to work together to help communities around the country better meet their housing, transportation, and environmental goals, laying the groundwork for an economy that provides good jobs now and creates a strong foundation for long-term prosperity. In 2010, HUD, the Department of Transportation, and the EPA created an unprecedented partnership called the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, aligning resources and cutting bureaucratic overlap to better coordinate housing, transportation, and environmental initiatives, the three legs of sustainable community development.

HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities represents the agency in the partnership, and Director Shelley Poticha spoke with EcoHome about how this partnership evolved, what it has accomplished, and how this three-pronged effort has stimulated both economic activity and energy conservation in important ways that will support states, regions, and individual cities in meeting their goals for energy and economic growth.

According to agency literature, the mission of Sustainable Housing and Communities is to create strong communities by “connecting housing to jobs, fostering local innovation, and helping to build a clean energy economy.” To achieve these goals, the office coordinates federal housing and transportation investments with local planning departments aiming to reduce transportation costs, improve housing affordability, save energy, and increase access to housing and employment opportunities. “By ensuring that housing is located near job centers and affordable, accessible transportation, we will nurture healthier, more inclusive communities, which provide opportunities for people of all ages, incomes, races, and ethnicities to live, work, and learn together,” said Poticha.

To date, the Partnership has funded 744 projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico with approximately $3.7 billion in assistance. As of April 2012, Partnership agencies had received more than 7,700 applications requesting almost $102 billion in funding. One recipient, Salt Lake City, used funds for a planning effort that will save the state of Utah $4.3 billion in infrastructure costs by focusing development on the region’s transportation system and existing communities. Chicago used funds to devise a plan that will save the metro area $1.5 billion in infrastructure spending by focusing on development along transportation corridors with commercially vital, complete streets. The agency points out that if everyone living in the regions supported by Partnership programs were able to drive one less mile per day, “Residents of these regions would be driving 48 trillion fewer miles per year and saving approximately $8.5 billion annually just on gasoline.” These are the kinds of numbers we will need to reach the ambitious goals of the 2030 Challenge.

I asked Poticha how HUD came to the idea of coordinating with formerly unrelated partners. “One thing Secretary Shaun Donovan brought to the agency early on was a concern about how we have built many of our communities in patterns that separate where we live and where we work. People spend a tremendous amount of time commuting, and we see families spending on average $0.52 of every dollar on automobile transportation, which adds the cost of owning a car to getting to a job and creates a significant environmental impact. The partnership started in June 2009 when the heads of the three agencies agreed to sign on to a set of livability principles, and they agreed to do all they could do within each agency to achieve it. An office coordinating these efforts was established a few months later. But this was just the beginning. It has become larger, now we work with Health and Human Services, FEMA, and the Department of Commerce, too.”

An example Poticha cited during our conversation was the twin cities of Rawson and Charleston, W.Va. These two small communities were once key hubs in the state known for glass manufacturing. This economy died years ago, and the towns have struggled, losing young people, businesses, and confronting a legacy of polluted property, or brownfields. They started to work with the EPA and won a grant to study a corridor of polluted sites between their respective downtowns, about two miles apart. “They got some money to clean up these properties,” Poticha said, “And then made an investment to build a LEED-Platinum university on one of the sites. It became a solar-powered facility that houses an online program training military personnel, which employs several hundred people. This brought a new level of vitality to the community and a catalyst for families to remain and others to move in. Eventually this stirred enough interest that they won a grant from DOT to connect the two towns with complete streets and then a planning grant from HUD to develop a mixed-use, form-based code encouraging housing and retail development. They adopted a new green building code to encourage energy efficiency. This was the first time DOT and HUD had issued a request for proposals together. HUD provided the code update funds, and DOT [provided] the transportation money.”

Poticha emphasized that coordination between agencies and outright partnerships work more efficiently than agencies working separately to serve the same communities, especially when energy-efficiency goals overlap, as with housing, economic development, and transportation. She cited another example, one of the largest Partnership efforts to date, Denver’s new rail system, FasTracks. “DOT has contributed significant funding for FasTracks to connect all surrounding communities, but the limitation that DOT encountered is that they cannot focus on how the areas around the transit centers develop. So HUD stepped in to help Denver buy land around transit centers for exclusively affordable, mixed-use, and local services. A second grant is expanding this concept regionally through the Denver Regional Council of Governments. The EPA has an interesting role in this region, too. They are helping to rebuild water infrastructure and implement water conservation strategies.”

As far as shooting at targets like those laid out by the 2030 Challenge, Poticha pointed out that federal agencies cannot impose a single-focus method to all regions. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy,” she said. “Our role is to help communities deal with the issues they have defined.” She pointed to the differences between initiatives funded in Connecticut and Alabama as examples of how the Partnership works to facilitate local and not federal goals.

The Partnership has become an entity unto itself, “We jointly review applications for competitive funding. We work to define how the policies each of our agencies use may be better coordinated. We do cross-training of our staff to expand how issues interrelate and overlap. We meet every Wednesday and have for three years running.” Even EPA programs, such as Energy Star, are being folded into Sustainable Communities. “We don’t set requirements for individual buildings, but we are encouraging HUD programs that finance housing to recognize the value of green building, so we have already inserted into our competitive grants very high expectations, including alignment to EPA.”

It should be pointed out that some other contributors to the Vision 2020 Sustainable Communities forum have complained about federal funding limitations that inhibit the full potential of mixed-use development. In a recent post, John Norquist, [PLEASE link to Norquist post from 25June, which is part of this round’s batch of content] president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, made the case that government agencies were choking city growth through staid lending standards, limitations that worked against the very goals set by the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, namely the proximity of housing and commercial development, which is what allows residents to walk to work and shop.

In defense of her agency, Poticha replied that HUD and FHA have taken on a significantly larger role in the housing market than originally intended, especially in today’s recessionary housing economy when these agencies act as a backstop. “There remains a fairly significant aversion to providing so much flexibility that it would add risk,” said Poticha. “HUD does have flexibility in providing funding for some commercial financing in combination with multifamily, and we realize that in some areas we need to provide greater flexibility to the existing caps. But it won’t happen everywhere, and it won’t happen overnight. We have to find the balance between incentivizing these kinds of developments in the right places, but without creating imbalance and additional risk.”

Click here to see how the Office of Management and Budget sustainability scorecard rated HUD’s progress in achieving the agencies 2020 targets.