Missing Priorities In HUD/DOT Sustainable Communities Initiative

At a US House of Representatives hearing last week on “Livable Communities, Transit Oriented Development, and Incorporating Green Building Practices into Federal Housing and Transportation,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and […]

At a US House of Representatives hearing last week on “Livable Communities, Transit Oriented Development, and Incorporating Green Building Practices into Federal Housing and Transportation,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced an new partnership. A joint task force, the “Sustainable Communities Initiative,” will address the intersection of transportation and housing affordability.

While any genuine effort to address housing affordability is welcome, this new HUD/DOT task force is particularly exciting because it reflects a new understanding of the complex issues that confront metropolitan regions and the sometimes surprising ways they intersect. Encouraging smarter planning, expanding the definition of affordability, and researching the livability of communities work in tandem to increase the use of public transportation, decrease our carbon footprint, reduce urban sprawl, enable the smarter use of regional resources, and improve affordable housing options for families. In short, this is one of those rare initiatives that seem to naturally align a multitude of interests.

Unfortunately, two considerations were missing from this announcement: the impact of racial and economic segregation and the importance of open government data. But with just a few tweaks addressing these concerns, HUD and DOT can dramatically expand the impact of this new task force.

Recent studies and Web tools from the Brookings Institution, Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), and the Urban Land Institute, have highlighted the impact on families overburdened with the inextricably linked cost of housing and transportation. The 2006 Brookings/CNT report The Affordability Index explains:

“Although housing is considered affordable if it accounts for roughly 30 percent or less of a household’s monthly budget, location costs, and more specifically transportation costs, are often dramatically underestimated or ignored. Nationally, transportation is the second largest household expenditure after housing, ranging from less than 10 percent of the average household’s expenditures in transit-rich areas to nearly 25 percent in many other areas.”

The HUD/DOT press release specifically outlines the goals of this new task force:

  • Redefine affordability and make it transparent: The task force will develop Federal housing affordability measures that include housing, and transportation costs and other costs that affect location choices… The task force will also continue to ensure that the costs of living in certain geographic areas are transparent- using an online tool that calculates the combined housing and transportation costs families face when choosing a new home.
  • Develop livability measures: The task force will research, evaluate and recommend measures that indicate the livability of communities, neighborhoods and metropolitan areas.
  • Harmonize HUD and DOT programs: HUD and DOT will work together to identify opportunities to better coordinate their programs and encourage location efficiency in housing and transportation choices.
  • Undertake joint research, data collection and outreach: HUD and DOT will engage in joint research, data collection, and outreach efforts with stakeholders, to develop information platforms and analytic tools to track housing and transportation options and expenditures, establish standardized and efficient performance measures, and identify best practices.”
Residential Segregation and Transportation Equity

At the Transportation Equity Network Conference last week, a team of equity advocates crafted a compelling statement on the multitude of federal opportunities to promote racial equity through transportation policy. In the statement entitled “Support Transportation Policy to Build Diverse, Sustainable Communities” they write:
“For 40 years, transportation and infrastructure spending has helped drive both sprawl and inequality in our nation’s metropolitan areas… Because of regional transportation and land use decisions, many of the most exclusive communities have gained the greatest share of their region’s business and residential tax wealth while doing the least to promote fair and open housing and school integration. “If transportation policy can drive segregation, it can also play a critical role in reversing these trends by rewarding open housing and pro-integration policies at the local level. In fact, transportation equity must include affirmative efforts to advance integration and the deconcentration of poverty within metropolitan regions if it is to be truly about equity and justice. Promoting more “public transit” is not enough.”

Their recommendations offer an array of rule changes that HUD and DOT could easily implement, including requiring that recipients of federal transportation funding certify that they “affirmatively further fair housing” (already a requirement of the recipients of CDBG funds), expand options for low- and moderate-income families as a metric for success, and promote inclusionary zoning policies. They also would compel Metropolitan Planning Organizations to include minority representatives in the planning process, consider patterns of residential segregation in all studies, and establish as goals reducing racial and economic segregation.

Specifically, the task force’s goal to create a Web-based tool for housing seekers should be combined with affirmative marketing efforts that would challenge the ignorance and prejudice that perpetuate segregation. In fact, HUD Transition Team member and NYU Public Policy and Urban Planning Professor Ingrid Gould Ellen advocated for just such a system a few months ago:

“Many households make their residential choices based on very limited information and consider only a small set of alternatives. Thus, we might also invest in Web-based neighborhood information systems that would make it easy for people to gather information about a broad set of neighborhoods when making their residential choices — about school quality, crime and the like.”

Just as housing and transportation are inextricably linked, so too are housing and racial and economic equity. And an unfortunate reality is rules and policies that remain silent on segregation nearly always reinforce the status quo’s unequal distribution of opportunities. The task force should incorporate the recommendations of the Transit Equity Network Conference into its mission.

Open Government Data

The two Web-based tools referenced above (linked again here and here), both built by the always-innovative Center for Neighborhood Technology, provide bureaucrats, elected officials, planners, and advocates valuable insight into the impact of the combined cost of housing and transportation. But for the average housing seeker looking for a more affordable neighborhood, they are not quite useful. Rather than allowing the housing seeker to enter their own address, their work address, and household income to search for affordable neighborhoods, they instead provide the average transportation time and cost for the current residents of a given geographic area. Interesting, but not particularly helpful.

It is important to note this lack of functionality is not the fault of CNT nor their research partners. Any effort — including the task force’s — to build a housing seeker-oriented “online tool that calculates the combined housing and transportation costs” faces a daunting task. Web sites like HopStop and Urban Mapping provide limited information about public transportation options in select geographic areas, and the Google Transit Partners program helps commuters once they’ve chosen a neighborhood. But absent a national, standardized, up-to-date, and free database that would enable searching and sorting of neighborhoods based on commute time and cost to and from a fixed (work) address, Web applications seeking to empower housing seekers to make smarter decisions are left to pay high fees and/or operate subject to the terms of service of private companies, all to access what is public data.

Just a few days after being appointed as President Obama’s CTO, former Washington DC CTO (and the man responsible for its standard-setting CapStat system) Vivek Kundra explained his vision of open government data during his first official conference call:

“One of the things we want to do is embark on launching data.gov which would democratize data and give data access to the public and based on that challenge whether it is citizens, NGOs, [or] the private sector to help us think through how we address some of the toughest problems in the public sector… We need to make sure that all that data that is not private, that is not restricted for national security reasons can be made public.”

In this arena, the task force’s path is clear — they should work to prioritize on data.gov a full-featured, license-free, and cost-free API (application programming interface) of all public transit system data. APIs provide a method for other websites and applications to access and utilize up-to-date data, empowering people and organizations to mix and mash data into new and engaging tools. Just as the recent stimulus bill compels states to publish standardized feeds of how they are spending the funds, so too should all federal transportation funding. Additionally, the task force should fund innovative, private-sector efforts that encourage housing seekers to consider the combined cost of housing and transportation when looking for a new home.

A New Coalition

Many have seen President Obama’s election as ushering in a new “post racial” society and an era of smart, transparent government. Key to these promises is a government that addresses problems at their roots and engages the best and the brightest to solve those problems. The severe racial, ethnic, and economic segregation in our metropolitan areas compounds the unequal distribution of transit options across neighborhoods, and the private sector time and time again has demonstrated its capacity for innovation.

By incorporating these two additional elements in the task force’s scope, it would earn the support of a wide array of advocates, innovators, analysts, and community activists. During the campaign, an apparent talent of the Obama team was its ability to bring together diverse coalitions through crafting smart and inclusive policy prescriptions. In their new role as the executive branch, now-President Obama’s team should follow this same strategy. Recognizing that expanding open government data and advancing racial and economic equity are just as intertwined with housing affordability as transportation is a key step in that process.

Hat tip to Kaid Benfield’s post on the task force on Rooflines and on his NRDC blog, in which I initially read about its goals.

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