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Livability and the GOP: A Conversation With HUD’s Mariia Zimmerman

Perhaps the Obama administration's greatest contribution to building more livable, less traffic-choked communities has been the new partnership between three agencies -- DOT, EPA, and HUD -- which are helping towns and cities grow more sustainably, using strategies from brownfield redevelopment to the provision of affordable housing along transit corridors. The agencies have collaborated to issue a series of grants to communities doing this work, but as the lower chamber of Congress shifts to Republican control, the funding for some of those programs is in question.

Mariia Zimmerman, Deputy Director for HUD's Office on Sustainable Communities.
Mariia Zimmerman, Deputy Director for HUD's Office on Sustainable Communities.

Streetsblog met with Mariia Zimmerman, Deputy Director for Sustainable Communities at HUD, to talk about these questions. Brian Sullivan from the Office of Public Affairs also joined us for the conversation.

Streetsblog: When you look at the new Congress coming in – how is that going to affect your work, and how does it affect your message?

Zimmerman: We are hopeful that a lot of the success stories in communities across the country – it’s being locally driven and it’s not a partisan issue. We have Republican and Democratic mayors and governors – it’s nonpartisan, or bipartisan. The partisanship does tend to come in from Congress. If you look at the map of where we made grant selections, they’re Democratic and Republican, small towns and big towns. So we’re hopeful that the demand, interest, and excitement around these programs will be conveyed to Congress no matter where they sit – what party, what state, what zip code they’re in.

People just think this is the right thing to do, and it’s long past time for the federal government to be supporting them instead of being in the way.

It’s long past time for the federal government to be supporting [livable communities] instead of being in the way.

In terms of messaging, we have always felt there is a strong economic need for investing more smartly, leveraging our resources. Federal coordination is just cost effectiveness.

That message is one we can be stronger on. We’ve talked about some of the environmental and quality-of-life reasons for sustainability – we can do a better job of explaining what are the costs of not investing this way and what are the savings if we do. It’s really about trying to invest more wisely. As Rob Puentes at Brookings likes to say, ‘We’re out of money, now’s the time to think!’

SB: Tom Latham is likely to be the new head of the House Transportation and HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, and he’s an Iowa boy. He’s from a small town. He doesn’t really get livability. How do you deal with someone like that holding the purse strings?

MZ: We’re happy to talk with them about the number of small communities that came forward for our regional planning grants. Each of them was saying, ‘we have been wanting to do this for so long but there are not resources for small communities to do long range integrated planning, because those resources go to the state. We can’t control, we can’t plan what we want to do.’ They’re saying, ‘we’re losing a lot of jobs; we have aging infrastructure, aging population. How are we going to grow and prosper?’

We also had a lot of fast-growing rural communities and they want to know how they can get control of their growth, how they can build their economies to have a stronger connection to urban areas where the market may be. They’re having hard issues of affordable housing and growth pressures. We hope those communities will make the case.

SB: You gave out planning grants, what if there’s no money for implementation? Especially if a Republican Congress tightens the purse strings?

The moment a community starts to whisper about doing a new transit line, developers are speculating and buying up land – and it’s becoming harder to preserve and create affordable housing.

Sullivan: You can use block grant funding – the normal stable of programs here at HUD – to actually implement these plans. In larger entitlement communities, they get direct block grant funding from us that they can use to implement these. They don’t have to go to the state for that. They can do it themselves.

If you’re a rural community, and you don’t get direct block grant funding from HUD, you do have to go to the state, sell that idea to the state, say ‘we’ve got this regional plan to keep us going for the next 50 years. We need some of that state CDBG money.’

SB: There’s no new money.

MZ: There’s no new money. We already have a lot of money our three agencies are giving each year. How do we make those investments work to implement these grants? There is a lot at our disposal and we want to make sure that if people are coming forward with these great plans and this great vision, that we’re not being the stumbling block. I’m not going to say new money and more money wouldn’t be great, but first and foremost let’s make sure the existing funds we have are supporting this.

SB: Are lenders open to sustainability practices? Are you bringing the whole development community along with you?

MZ: The development community, all on its own, has been going through a pretty major transformation. The moment a community starts to whisper about doing a new transit line, developers are speculating and buying up land – and it’s becoming harder to preserve and create affordable housing. So the demand is there, we don’t have enough supply for it.

It may not be the entire development community, but we’ve had sensational interest by the development community for new housing, or traditional housing, if we think back to how our cities used to be. They have a lot of ideas as well, in terms of barriers in the tax codes or our loan programs that are only to support one element of the market, and they want to level the playing field for a developer who wants to do different kinds of development.

SB: You mentioned affordability. Transit-oriented development, livability does raise property values. That’s a double-edged sword. HUD’s mission is about affordable housing. How do you square that with encouraging livability?

MZ: For many years, transit was seen as the transportation for those who could afford nothing else. One of the reasons there’s a larger transit constituency now than there was 20 years ago is a result of the benefits for those who choose to use transit. And one of them is an increase in property values, which can translate to an increase in equity if you’re a homeowner. That is a benefit that transit and TOD can provide.

We need to be more purposeful in ensuring those benefits accrue to those who lived there before the transit investment and people who need low-cost transportation options. We haven’t seen that the marketplace itself is going to make sure that equitable distribution happens. What strategies can we put in place to ensure the preservation and the creation of long-term affordable housing? In many of our communities, it’s illegal to do multi-family housing, or do mixed use development, or have lower parking standards, so we’re not able to grow the supply, which is creating more and more pressure.

BS: And if CDBG and HOME funds are used in the implementation of these plans, there’s an absolute requirement to maintain affordability.

MZ: Fair housing can be about concentrations of poverty, racial segregation, or other impediments – people who have mobility impairments, are they able to access housing options across the region? In our challenge grants, we have over a dozen of those that want to set up either land banking or land acquisition funds or other strategies to think about long-term, permanent affordable housing strategies within new or existing transit corridors. They can use our funds to help set those up.

BS: Sustainable homeownership is something we’re learning about right now in the biggest way since the Great Depression. This correction that’s taking place is leading to a re-balancing of housing across all kinds of regions. Maybe we were too homeownership-happy.

SB: Is that where HUD is going?

BS: I wouldn’t say that. Who doesn’t support homeownership? But there’s much more emphasis on the sustainable part of homeownership. It doesn’t do anybody any good to get into a home they can’t sustain.

Check back tomorrow for more from Streetsblog's conversation with Mariia Zimmerman and Brian Sullivan. We ask them about the unexpected challenges of cross-agency collaboration, the selection process for grantees. and a little-known program that could help stretch housing money -- or expose affordable housing to foreclosure.

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