In April, Secretary Shaun Donovan of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Ray LaHood of the Department of Transportation announced a joint agency sustainable communities initiative that aims to address the intersection of transportation and housing affordability. While any genuine effort to address housing affordability is welcome, this announcement reflects a new understanding of the complex issues that confront metropolitan regions and the ways they intersect. The initiative signaled an understanding within the administration that encouraging smarter planning, expanding the definition of affordability, and researching the livability of communities are all essential in increasing the use of public transportation, decreasing our carbon footprint, reducing urban sprawl, enabling the smarter use of regional resources, and improving affordable housing options for families. Shortly after the announcement, many heralded this initiative as a sign of things to come: smart, collaborative, research-based, and innovative.
A newly created interagency task force maps out four goals. First, it aims to develop federal affordability measures that include housing and transportation costs, and other costs that affect location choices, as well as a way to indentify the cost of living in certain geographic areas by way of an online tool that calculates the combined housing and transportation costs families face when choosing a new home.
The task force will also design measures that indicate the livability of communities, neighborhoods and metropolitan areas, identify opportunities to better coordinate HUD and DOT programs and encourage location efficiency in housing and transportation choices.
Finally, the task force will encourage HUD and DOT to 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.
This is a good start, but it’s clear that three things were missing from these goals: the importance of open government data, the impact of racial and economic segregation, and the power of private-sector innovation. Government data is necessary to make transparent the true cost of housing and transportation. Just as it is inextricably linked to housing, transportation is woven into America’s severe case of racial, ethnic, and economic segregation.
And while the new White House Office of Social Innovation demonstrates the administration’s commitment to private-sector collaboration, in many ways the “Sustainable Communities Initiative” represents just a step forward for an administration that could have leaped ahead.
Open Government Data
Two Web-based tools recently built by the Center for Neighborhood Technology now provide bureaucrats, elected officials, planners, and advocates with valuable insight into the impact of the combined cost of housing and transportation. Unfortunately, these tools are not as useful for the average housing seeker looking for a more affordable neighborhood. 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. It provides for interesting data, but not particularly helpful.
This lack of functionality is not CNT’s fault or the fault of their research partners. Any effort — including the task force’s — to build an 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. No Web application offers 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 designed to empower home seekers so they can make smarter decisions that require some sort of fee to access what is public data.
Just a few days after being appointed as President Obama’s chief technology officer, Vivek Kundra, the former Washington, DC CTO (and the force behind DC’s standard-setting CapStat data sharing system), explained his vision of open government data during his first official conference call: “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 make 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 Web sites and applications to access and use 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.
At the Transportation Equity Network (TEN) conference in March, a team of equity advocates crafted a compelling statement on the multitude of federal opportunities to promote racial equity through transportation policy. Under the heading “Support Transportation Policy to Build Diverse, Sustainable Communities” they wrote:
“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 de-concentration of poverty within metropolitan regions if it is to be truly about equity and justice. Promoting more “public transit” is not enough.”
TEN recommends 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 Community Development Block Grant 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 (MPOs) 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.
The HUD/DOT 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 New York University Public Policy and Urban Planning Professor Ingrid 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.”
Despite the absence of racial and ethnic equity as an explicit goal of the initiative, there is reason to hope. HUD Deputy Secretary nominee Ron Sims, currently King County Executive, has a strong record of advocating for making equity a metric of success in all government programs. In the introduction to a report announcing the “King County Equity & Social Justice Initiative” entitled Working Toward Fairness and Opportunity for All, Sims writes, “[This] Initiative takes aim at . . . inequities and injustices. Government is better prepared than ever before to address this problem. And correcting inequities and promoting equal opportunity for all residents are the essence of what government should do. This is not business as usual.”
Just as housing and transportation are inextricably linked, so are housing and racial and economic equity. 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 and incorporate affirmative marketing efforts into any housing/transportation affordability Web site.
Fostering Social Innovation
For a new generation of leaders in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, the planned White House Office of Social Innovation and the Social Innovation Funds pilot program created by the Serve America Act are promising signs that entrepreneurship and innovation will be priorities in the new administration. The excitement on an entire network of social entrepreneurship and philanthropy blogs is almost palpable.
Sonal Shah, the newly appointed head of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House — much like nominee Sims and CTO Kundra — brings with her valuable insight and experience and a stellar record of accomplishments. Shah, who is leaving as the head of Google.org (Google philanthropic/foundation arm) to head the office, has an impressive combination of for- and nonprofit experience. She is the co-founder of Indicorps, a U.S.-based organization offering fellowships for Americans of Indian origin to work on development projects in India, the former Associate Director for Economic and National Security Policy at the Center for American Progress, where she focused on trade, outsourcing and post conflict reconstruction issues, and served as Vice President at Goldman, Sachs and Co. where she developed and implemented the firm’s environmental strategy.
When you add the new Office of Urban Affairs Policy to the mix, the possibilities for this initiative expand exponentially. Tasked with taking “a coordinated and comprehensive approach to developing and implementing an effective strategy concerning urban America,” this Office’s role was not outlined in the Sustainable Communities Initiative announcement but is not hard to imagine. Including access to green jobs in transportation planning or adding the locations of federally funded social service programs into a housing/transportation affordability Web tool are just a few of their options.
In a compelling article on the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Opinion blog, Mario Marino of Venture Philanthropy Partners makes a passionate case for wide-scale innovation:
“While I could not be more supportive of the Office of Social Innovation, I believe this is a chance for the President to systematically foster a mindset in America that is nothing short of a cultural and economic ground-shift. He must broaden the focus across and among the private, public, and nonprofit sectors — to seek and spark the most promising innovations whether they come from commercial or social entrepreneurs, executives or line workers, community leaders, public servants, researchers, or citizens who don’t fit into any of these categories. The real opportunity before the president is to supercharge innovators from all walks of life and make commercial and social innovation our national imperative.”
It is not enough for the White House to selectively pilot a handful of new collaborations. Rather, their focus on innovation should be a part of each and every sector of the federal bureaucracy. The sustainable communities initiative 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, develop affordable housing near a variety of transit options, and convene municipalities, researchers, and residents in Web-based, collaborative planning efforts.