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Budget 2011: Creating Quality Places

For many, what makes a neighborhood or a community a great place to live is a mix of people, activities, and physical forms. Quality places are those neighborhoods and communities that have a range of housing types, so that people who live in small households or on tight budgets aren’t excluded; many transportation options, so that cars are a convenience, but not a necessity; and houses, stores, and offices interspersed and within easy reach of each other, again so that daily life doesn’t require getting behind the wheel. 

Public policies, from local decisions about zoning codes to national decisions about light rail and highways, can facilitate or hinder the growth of these places. Generally, the federal government has been more of a hindrance because it focuses on housing and transportation programs, rather than the places in which housing and transportation come together.  (If housing and transportation aren’t connected, why do suburban houses have driveways?)

The administration’s 2011 budget proposal shows some movement away from this narrow focus on programs and towards a greater understanding of the need to integrate what different agencies do to create great places to live and work. The administration has allocated close to $690 million for its Sustainable Communities Initiative, a partnership between the Department of Transportation, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency to promote regional planning efforts that integrate housing, transportation, and other investments. That more than quadruples the $150 million allocated to the initiative in FY 2010.

The federal government already asks local and metropolitan actors to make a plan to guide how they will spend federal funds for housing and transportation and energy, but no agencies have encouraged places to integrate all these plans.  Instead, each agency asks for narrowly focused documents, usually drawn up by different governmental entities, keyed to different timelines.  Imagine paying your federal income taxes to a handful of different federal agencies, each with its own set of reporting requirements, deductions, tax rates, and mismatched filing deadlines--that’s roughly what communities are asked to do to fulfill the myriad federal planning requirements for housing, transportation, or energy funds. 

The Sustainable Communities Initiative cannot undo all these frustrating, overlapping-but-not-quite-enough requirements that are calcified in regulations, but it is a significant signal that comprehensive regional planning is valuable and will be rewarded.

Another major quality place initiative is the Neighborhood Revitalization effort, which also draws on resources and programs from several agencies. HUD’s contributions include the $150 million Catalytic Competition Grants program, available to governments or non-government entities with plans for economic revival in distressed areas, plus its $250 million Choice Neighborhoods Program, also available to public, private and non-profit entities that work in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and concentrated public housing. The Department of Justice budget has $40 million for its neighborhood revitalization programs to stop gang violence and help ex-offenders resettle into jobs and communities. The Department of Education’s $210 million Promise Neighborhoods effort, modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, is tied to the neighborhood revitalization project, as is Health and Human Services’ Health Center Program. 

Creating quality places necessarily entails inter-agency collaboration, which is why place-focused approaches are rare.  It’s hard to get agencies to work together--they have different imperatives, cultures, governing laws, and congressional masters. From Washington’s perspective, it’s much easier to leave it to people on the ground to do the difficult and intricate work of aligning and matching all these disparate federal programs to make somewhere that’s safe, attractive, and sustainable. This budget shows a welcome commitment to choosing what’s effective for places over what’s easy. 

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