WASHINGTON, D.C. - As I write this, Sen. John McCain is visiting Youngstown, Ohio, my hometown. Like a long line of politicians before him, he wanted to show he cares about the problems of declining urban areas.
Every four years, decaying cities get a fresh dose of lip service from both political parties— empty words leading nowhere. After the feds created the Department of Housing and Urban Development 43 years ago, I guess they figured they did enough. No matter if that agency is a dysfunctional den of corruption.
But, as I conclude 15 years as editor of this magazine, what disappoints me most is not the failure of federal leadership. We’ve seen that on issue after issue.
What distresses me most is that for all of this industry’s accomplishments, the vast majority of voters and most public officials still don’t understand how it contributes to the long-term health of American communities. Sure, people SAY they support the idea of affordable housing. But when it comes to actual projects in the cities where they live, they don’t support it at all.
Despite all the high-quality projects you have built, NIMBYism is getting worse, not better. Land-use laws that favor affordable housing are coming under attack, and in tough economic times, government leaders will be less likely to allocate scarce resources to support developments their citizens oppose.
So why does this industry have a PR problem second only to Big Oil and nuclear power?
Because we have not made our case well. Our trade associations churn out statistics about how many people have “high rent burdens,” and how housing costs are rising faster than incomes. How compelling are those mindnumbing abstractions at a time when almost everyone feels like they are struggling?
Much too often, land-use discussions become “us against them” battles with no reference to the bigger picture of the long-term viability of the communities where we live.
I believe that this industry will only make real progress against NIMBYism and toward more political support if it changes the terms of the debate. And if it ties its interests to the greater good, forming coalitions with other interest groups to win political support for projects that address a range of community needs.
That’s why, after leaving the editorship of this magazine, I’m starting a nonprofit called The Partnership for Sustainable Communities. It will tell policymakers and the public about the many benefits of affordable housing, not just as shelter for those people lucky enough to get a low-rent unit, but as a key component of a comprehensive approach to smart growth that benefits entire communities. It will talk about housing as a nexus for social services that empowers low-income families to improve their fortunes.
It will help local developers and housing advocates build alliances with advocates on related issues, particularly business leaders who understand the economic benefits of low-cost housing and environmentalists who grasp the benefits of high-density, transit-oriented development.
Finally, The Partnership will encourage governments to facilitate projects that advance the goal of sustainable communities, and help developers deliver them.
Our industry has a tremendous story to tell. Many developers are building projects that are focal points for urban revitalization. They link housing with job creation and job training, provide social services, stabilize neighborhoods, and integrate communities racially and economically. Increasingly, projects address the transportation needs of their tenants and help protect the environment.
It’s time we start telling our success story far more effectively. In an era of increasing scarcity and environmental decay, sustainability is fast becoming the key measure of future success for our communities. I believe our industry must make sure that well-planned affordable housing is considered an essential part of what makes a community sustainable. If we do, I think we’ll find it easier to get political support, government resources and maybe even a less divisive approach to land use planning.
Please tell me what you think and if you can help. Write to [email protected] or 20 Inverness Drive, San Rafael, CA 94901. I believe that this industry will only make real progress against NIMBYism and toward more political support if it changes the terms of the debate.