Lawmakers Aim to Bring ‘Sustainable Communities’ From Talk to Action

When three agencies in President Obama's Cabinet -- DOT, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency -- banded together to promote "sustainable communities," the initiative sounded promising but somewhat lacking in concrete ideas.

610x.jpgRep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) attached his green-housing legislation to the recently passed House climate bill. (Photo: AP)

Enter a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), who successfully attached their green housing legislation to the climate bill that recently cleared the House. Perlmutter and his co-sponsors took a victory lap of sorts today at the Library of Congress as a Senate counterpart to their plan was officially unveiled by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

The green housing measure aims to promote sustainable development through several channels. Transit-oriented development gets a substantial nod via location-efficient mortgages (LEMs), a brainchild of Fannie Mae that offers to count transportation savings as part of a homeowner's income when approving a loan. LEMs, therefore, help make transit access easier for first-time, urban, and lower-income buyers.

People who take out LEMs have a lower-than-average risk of default, Perlmutter said today, "because they have better control over costs."

His legislation would ask the Federal Housing Administration to insure 50,000 LEMs and energy-efficient mortgages, or EEMs, (in which energy savings can help offset homeowners' income) by 2012. The bill also requires Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to work on underwriting standards that would help make LEMs and EEMs more commonplace.

"Too many Americans are forced to drive until they qualify, to buy homes further and further from their jobs -- the result is more congestion, more emissions from cars, and more sprawl," said American Institute of Architects CEO Christine McEntee, a longtime backer of the bill.

Other provisions in the legislation reflect an ethos of empowering renters and homeowners alike to avoid over-consumption. Congress has long favored aid programs that essentially subsidize traditional energy use, but Perlmutter's proposal would start to incentivize more sustainable living.

To help put solar panels and other clean energy generators within reach for everyone, the bill would set up a program to expedite five-year leases of equipment and offer government-insured loans for homeowners to purchase their energy generators when those leases expire.

To help low-income residents save money by weatherizing and retrofitting their homes, the bill would create an energy-efficiency block grant program modeled on HUD's successful community development block grants.

The biggest hurdle the bill faces is the same one confronting the Senate's broader climate legislation: an all-but-certain GOP filibuster threat that could pull off enough coal-state Democrats to sink the effort for good.

But with Whitehouse joined by two powerful Democrats on his Senate version, Robert Menendez (NJ) and Charles Schumer (NY), there's reason to believe that Congress could make faster progress on "sustainable communities" than the Obama administration.