HUD: Now’s the Time to Tell Congress Why Smart Planning Matters

I don’t know how many RSVPs a HUD conference call usually gets, but everyone seemed pretty floored that a stakeholder teleconference yesterday got upwards of 400. Officials said it was a testament to the popularity of HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities and the grant programs it runs together with EPA and U.S. DOT.

Chicago's GO TO 2040 plan to link transportation, land use, and economic development was awarded a $4.25 million regional planning grant from HUD last October. Image: CMAP

The three agencies have been working together for the last few years to help local communities coordinate transportation and land use policies, saving money and curbing carbon emissions in the process. But the collaboration was dealt a blow this year when Congress axed funding for the partnership’s Regional Planning grants and Community Challenge grants. Now HUD is urging anyone who’s ever gotten one of those grants, or might like to get one someday, or cares about sustainability in general, to pressure Congress to reinstate funding for next year.

Shelley Poticha, the director of HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, emphasized that they’re still working with their grantees, despite the devastating budget cut this year. But they can’t make any new grants. Considering this is a grant program where applications outnumber capacity ten to one, the demand is clear. Now HUD would like supporters of the program from around the country to let Congress know that they care about it.

“We just need members to understand the value of the project,” said Peter Kovar, HUD’s assistant secretary for Congressional and intergovernmental affairs. “Members of Congress like to know the impact on the ground, locally in cities and towns and communities and rural areas, in terms of job creation.”

Though House Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget proposal is a nightmare scenario for transportation programs in general, that’s not the focus of HUD’s attention at the moment, since it isn’t detailed enough about the Sustainable Communities program one way or another. Kovar said that right now, they’re looking toward the appropriations bill for 2013. They’d like the Sustainable Communities Office to be a line item again this time around. President Obama’s 2013 budget requests $100 million for the program — $46 million each for the Regional Planning and Community Challenge grants, plus $8 million for best practices and program evaluation.

That’s why HUD timed this outreach call to coincide with the beginning of the two-week Easter recess – or, “district work period,” as they like to call it now. Kovar said members often work harder when they’re home than when they’re in Washington. So HUD wants people to grab these lawmakers while they’re hanging around their home districts to let them know they want to revive the program.

They’re trying to combat the image of all federal discretionary programs as some kind of “top-down” machine run by “faceless Washington bureaucrats.” Poticha said the whole program is based on listening sessions officials held around the country, and each grantee project bubbles up from the local level. And she said that these grants don’t just fund regional plans that “sit on a shelf” – communities that are awarded a planning grant are then good candidates for another round of funding to implement those plans.

Although the grants are frozen for 2012, Poticha affirmed that collaboration among HUD, EPA, and U.S. DOT continues, and that the secretaries of all three agencies are committed to the partnership. Joint grantmaking “leads to more strategic and informed investments in each of our agencies,” she said. DOT particularly benefits, she said, because they have more confidence in awarding TIGER grants to a community that has already gone though a Sustainable Communities planning grant and has the support of the community behind it. She said that the linkage will be more explicitly laid out in the criteria of the fourth round of TIGER funding.