WASHINGTON, D.C. When I arrived here as an eager college graduate in 1979, I had a case of Potomac Fever. I believed the federal government was a force for good, and I wanted to help all those smart people shape policy and save the world.
I took a job reporting on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But it did not take long before I saw through to the underlying cynicism of the place and realized that HUD was becoming more about politics and patronage than effective policy.
What a difference 30 years can make. After some terrible leadership under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, several serious scandals, and a near-death experience that decimated its staff, HUD is finally moving in a positive direction.
Returning to HUD in June to meet with Secretary Shaun Donovan, I walked by the portraits of past secretaries. I broke out laughing, partly because some were such clowns, but also because of the joy of knowing the agency finally has a highly experienced housing professional at the helm. The most obvious benefit for developers from the change in administrations is a restoration of some of the massive budget cuts.
Then there is the caliber of people. The agency is staffing up with top people, like Carol Galante from BRIDGE Housing and Erika C. Poethig from the MacArthur Foundation.
But I think the most exciting change is the collaboration between HUD, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Donovan and the leaders of the other two agencies plan to coordinate policies to promote community sustainability.
Donovan told me that HUD would soon announce who will head its new Office of Community Sustainability. Several policy changes are under way, and Congress is likely to approve a request for planning grants and other funding. First, HUD is looking at eliminating the limit on the amount of commercial space that can be included in projects seeking FHA multifamily insurance, with the goal of encouraging more mixed use. Another important effort is development of a combined affordability index that reflects housing and transportation costs, so that HUD can create a truly location-efficient mortgage, Donovan said.
The HUD effort will be supported by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which I launched to increase support for locationally and environmentally efficient affordable housing. I intend to do all I can to help Donovan and his team advance their work, especially the cause of sustainable communities. I hope you will too.
Shashaty is president of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a San Rafael, Calif., nonprofit that provides information and policy support for affordable housing developers, city planners, and advocates to help preserve and create communities that are environmentally and economically sustainable for people of all incomes. For more information, visit www.p4sc.org.