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Sen. Menendez Introduces Bill to Plan For Livable Communities

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez has taken up where former Senator Chris Dodd left off. Last week, Menendez offered a fresh version of Dodd’s Livable Communities Act. The bill would formally authorize the HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities and its Regional Planning and Community Challenge grant programs, restoring funding for those programs to 2010 levels.

Sen. Bob Menendez is hoping to bring funding for livable communities back to 2010 levels. Photo courtesy of Sen. Menendez's office.

The office works to “coordinate federal housing and transportation investments with local land use decisions in order to reduce transportation costs for families, improve housing affordability, save energy, and increase access to housing and employment opportunities.”

The bill would also create a loan program for transit oriented development projects.

In comparison with the 2009 version, the total dollar amount of the five-year bill is smaller -- $880 million compared to almost $2 billion. Last time around, the country was already in the throes of economic crisis, but Congress hadn’t changed hands yet and ushered in a new generation of deficit hawks. So Menendez kept this bill a little more modest, holding spending at 2010 levels (before the livability programs got hammered with cuts earlier this year.)

In hopes of winning over some of those deficit hawks, the bill starts off with the assertion that strategic community planning could save nearly $122 billion in infrastructure costs over the net 25 years.

The $880 million is mostly for Regional Planning Grants ($600 million) with $180 million for Challenge Grants and $100 million for TOD loans, which haven’t existed up until now. Fifteen percent of funds are destined for rural areas.

Some elements of the Dodd bill have already been implemented and aren't mentioned in the Menendez version, like a Transportation & Housing Affordability Index, which HUD now has; and an Interagency Council on Sustainable Communities, which is essentially the existing tri-agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Some elements have simply been stripped since the Dodd bill, like grant programs for enforcing green building codes, or to help towns and cities adjust to population loss and vacancies, or to improve community zoning.

Sen. Dodd's bill passed the Senate Banking Committee (which he chaired) but never went on to a vote on the Senate floor. Menendez hopes this one will fare better.

“What we build has real impact on how much time we spend in traffic, whether we can afford to live close to where we work, and whether businesses can attract and retain workers,” said Menendez, who chairs the Banking Subcommittee for Housing, Transportation, and Community Development.  “This bill is about making better coordinated investments so that we use our resources wisely and can enjoy attractive, economically viable, healthy communities that are resilient over the long-term.”

Though Menendez hopes his Republican colleagues will see the bill as an opportunity to reduce duplication in federal agencies and invest smarter in housing and transportation projects for economic development, so far, no Republicans have bitten. The bill has 17 co-sponsors – all Democrats and one Democrat-leaning Independent.

The full bill text isn’t posted anywhere official yet, but you can read it here [PDF].

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