Shelterforce Interview: Ron Sims
By Miriam Axel-Lute, Matthew Brian Hersh, and Harold Simon Posted on February 7, 2011
You’ve said that sustainability is not the exclusive domain of the rich and that long-term sustainability policy should benefit low- and moderate-income individuals. But things like transportation require long-term commitment and investment. How do we turn this into policy when people are looking at short-term economic forecasts rather than the long-term economic benefits?
I’ve always thought it was going to be a marathon, not a sprint, because you’re talking about literally a sea change in how we look at cities and growth.
I always point out to people the problems of having too short-term a vision. When a person says to me, “I’m conservative,” I say, “Are you conservative for the moment because you think it’s great politics, or are you actually really a fiscal conservative?” A real fiscal conservative will look at sustainability and realize it is going to be cheaper in the long run, and particularly to the generations that are going to be adults in the most competitive world ever, and they’ve got to be able to use their money for things like education and technology and not have to spend money encouraging more sprawl or discouraging effective public transportation systems that move people efficiently.
Our competitors are investing in that even in these hard times. There’s got to be a long-term policy. When people say: “I want to be fiscally prudent,” they often shoot themselves in the foot. Fiscal prudence doesn’t necessarily buy prevention, and our key is to be far more preventive against excess cost and poor planning and being indifferent to the weight of their costs for future generations.
I would rather have my granddaughter and future generations tell me that she was proud of what we did: investments in good housing, public transportation, parks, and schools. Those generations will know that they can compete.
In the paper a conservative said sustainability is socialism. I say, “Give me a break,” because the ultimate savings of long-term resources helps future generations compete. So I get past the rhetoric, but it concerns me when I see it. I keep thinking we just have to endure, that people will have to realize the economic return of using resources and money smarter than we’ve ever used it before.
There’s a rhetorical barrier that you’ve just spoken about how to overcome, but what about the political barrier? “Long-term” is often two or four years.
Yes, unfortunately. But remember, 52 percent of [the requests for sustainability grants] were from small cities in rural areas. We have tapped in, I think, to a lot of people at the local level, the mayors and city councils, the businesspeople, the neighborhood people who are all saying there’s got to be a new day, because it’s the smart thing to do.
And how do you institutionalize this approach?
My wife used to tell me when I was in King County, “Remember, there are people that will be there now and are going to be there after you leave.” Political appointees are called short-timers because we’re only going to be there four years or eight years. Other people have been there 35 or 40 years.
But when you empower the people who have been there for a long time, they find is that this is exciting. That’s why they came to HUD. When you tell them what the change is going to be, then, all of a sudden, those people become believers.
Can you tell us some specific examples from your travels around the rest of the country of exciting, new approaches that HUD should be looking to to emulate?
There’s a good example from Cleveland related to Section 3 requirements—when you have HUD money, that’s supposed to create jobs. While I was there, a person was telling me about the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative [launched in 2007 by a working group convened by the Cleveland Foundation]. She was telling me about the excellent hospitals in Cleveland, that all suffered from a laundry issue. All of them knew they needed new laundry capacity, but none of them wanted to build a laundry on their own.
So the Cleveland Foundation says, “Why don’t we create a co-op that will do your laundry? And the people who are going to work in that co-op and be the equity holders of that co-op will be people who’ve had erratic employment histories, that are poor, that might have been in and out of jail. They will be the people that we will train to work in that laundry, and then it’ll be really well managed on top.”
So I said to the people in HUD, “Have we ever thought about telling [residents of poor communities], ‘Why don’t we make you the employer?’” Isn’t that what we really want to achieve in the end: self-sustaining employment, to have them take a risk so they are the ones knowing they have to go to work because, in the end, it is their company?
Now that’s what they did in Cleveland at the Evergreen Co-op. They’ve applied it now to solar, and they’re now doing a plan so that they will grow crops in the winter in these large greenhouses and sell them, but again, all the participants will be people out of these poorer communities. Brilliant.
So we are now changing what we call Section 3. We have a team that we’ve sent out in the country to look at innovative practices, and then we’re going to create training sessions. All because I was out in Cleveland.
The best program, bar none, in the United States for ending homelessness is in San Antonio, Texas, the Haven for Hope project.
Then there’s Mud Island in Memphis. They consider themselves the first urbanists. Mud Island still has a beauty that our HOPE VI projects don’t. I’ve been trying to get to the people in HOPE VI and saying, “Look at Mud Island in Memphis. Look at it. It’s really done well.”