The Reverse Commute

Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia may be in charge of a beautiful city, but he doesn't have much to take to the bank. Last year Philly's creditors put the city on a negative-ratings watch, following a borrowing spree that resulted in a couple of stadiums and a heap of bribes for a city treasurer who was hauled off in handcuffs. Last year, Philadelphia hiked taxes and squeezed pension funds to fill a quarter-billion-dollar budget gap.

But Philly does have a major asset: five forms of public transportation, from street cars to commuter rail, that knit the region together. During a recent convergence of real-estate developers, local government, and nonprofit leaders in the Center City district, Nutter bragged about the transportation system. "We have an infrastructure," he noted, "that other cities are spending billions to replicate." But first he bounded off the podium to shake the hand of "the lady here from HUD."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funnels roughly $160 million a year to Philadelphia, most of it to house low-income people in decent surroundings. But HUD's priorities are quickly evolving, and Nutter is not the only mayor to notice. "I do some dumb things from time to time, but my mother didn't raise a fool," Nutter joked during the meeting. "Just keep those checks coming. We love you! What an agency -- there's nothing like it," he said with a smile.

The subject of Nutter's attentions was Shelley Poticha, a small woman with a big assignment. As director of HUD's new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, Poticha is working to encourage a suburban nation to live in ways that make it feasible to walk, take public transit, and bike. Her goal is to make suburban sprawl a thing of the past by equipping local governments with the tools to build neighborhoods centered on public transit and walking.

Poticha is the nation's most visible advocate for what she and fellow urban planners call "transit-oriented development." For seven years, Poticha ran the Congress for the New Urbanism, the visionary and sometimes controversial band of architects, developers, and civic leaders determined to get Americans out of their cars and into distinctive places where community can thrive. Poticha has been part of this movement her entire career, and for the past year, she has led the charge from inside the Obama administration. "I'm always balancing between being a staid policy-oriented bureaucrat and being an advocate, which I am very much all about," Poticha assured the applauding Philadelphia crowd.

In her bureaucratic role, Poticha is the fulcrum of a partnership among HUD, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency that aims to sync up the agencies' resources and rules so that instead of encouraging sprawl -- which highway funds and housing subsidies have done for more than seven decades -- they tether new development to better transit. Congress has yet to authorize a budget for Poticha's office, but this year the agencies are jointly putting nearly $1 billion into the hands of local governments and partners.

Each Wednesday, Poticha meets with EPA smart-growth director John Frece and DOT policy chief Beth Osborne to make sure their agencies' programs are advancing "livability principles" -- transportation choices, affordable housing, walkable neighborhoods, economic growth -- and focusing development within existing communities. The agencies' policies and funding are beginning to address the fact that investments in places cannot be separated from the ways Americans travel between them. For instance, housing will no longer be classified as "affordable" based on the rent or mortgage alone; under a new system in development, financing formulas will factor in residents' transportation and utility costs, too.

"Where you build houses affects where you build roads and where you build roads affects where you build houses, and that affects the environment," Frece says. "Until now we've been acting like those things are separate."

That's exactly the problem. New measures to reverse the march of spraw may be too little, too late. It took seven decades and trillions in federal investment to create the sprawl that the Obama administration is now moving to brake. The first interstate highways rolled out in the 1950s with the present-day equivalent of $300 billion in federal *** funds. The suburban home industry was fueled by subsidies that today amount each year to almost twice HUD's entire budget.

By contrast, the administration's plans rely on nudging private growth in the right direction. But that assumes there's growth to drive. Somehow, Poticha's project will have to re-engineer the physical form of the nation in an economy drained of public funds, private credit, and, soon, cheap fossil fuel.

"We are comprehensively bankrupt at every level of American life. The scale and rate and increment of development that seemed normal in 2003 is over and gone for good," warns author James Howard Kunstler, who has spent two decades chronicling the ravages of suburban sprawl and sees shrinkage, not growth, as the wave of the future. "It doesn't matter what HUD does and Shelley does. They'll do what federal executives do. They'll pretend to be doing things."

***

This summer, Poticha's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities is taking applications for $100 million in grants for regional planning projects that get Americans out of their cars, onto their feet, and into public transit. Just as ambitiously, it also wants the communities of the future, unlike the suburbs or inner cities of the past, to be inclusive places where people of all income levels live side by side.

"It's all about building a movement and infrastructure to do this," says Poticha, who recently relocated with her husband and twin 12-year-old girls from Oakland, California, to Chevy Chase, Maryland -- a quick bus ride, she assures me, to the Metro. Poticha was raised in a house built by her architect father on a hill overlooking downtown Eugene, Oregon. Her Jewish family was so unusual there that the local paper interviewed her convert mother about their strange customs ("How old were your children when you explained to them why your family doesn't celebrate Christmas?").

The principles underlying Poticha's project have their origins in the Charter for the New Urbanism, which has guided hundreds of pedestrian -- friendly developments across the country. Signed in 1996, the charter combines a pragmatic set of design guidelines with values -- driven pronouncements about how people and places thrive together. "Over time," Poticha wrote in a 2000 preface, "I hope that the work of the New Urbanists will support what I see as an impending cultural shift."

During that year's election, new urbanists tried and failed to bring Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore on board. In urgent need of suburban votes, Gore campaigned on the environment but couldn't bring himself to publicly suggest that suburbia itself was part of the problem. A decade later, rising fuel costs, traffic tie-ups, and housing-bubble overbuilding have made voters, especially in the transit-impoverished West, receptive to conversations like the one Gore was afraid to initiate. Sprawling metro areas like Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Denver launched planning processes that brought together business, political, and civic leaders to reckon with their future. What would their regions look like if existing sprawl trends were left unchecked? What would each of them have to do to help avoid sending their employees or constituents into an endless traffic jam each day?

In Salt Lake City, the Chamber of Commerce answered by pushing a ballot measure for a sales-tax hike to pay for light-rail lines and a commuter train, along with more highway funding. It passed by a two-thirds margin in 2006. Denver and Los Angeles voters likewise swallowed new transit taxes. What has emerged from these civic experiments is an unorthodox model for how federal and state governments can influence local behavior.

"People everywhere look for the simple solution," explains Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Regional Council of Governments. "Where's the regulation, stick, backbone, teeth?" McKeever led thousands of business leaders, government officials, and local residents to weigh in on and agree to a "blueprint" for growth that includes ambitious goals for mass transit by 2050, putting about 40 percent of all homes and jobs within walking distance of a speedy commute (up from a dismal 2 percent and 5 percent now). "Look, we live in a democracy," he says. "People will do what they think is in their self-interest."

That collaborative approach is what drives Poticha and her new project. "It's the kind of conversation that brings in new people," she says. "It helps the private sector begin to get on board with playing in this space and not just leaving it to government. It's a place where citizens can be actively engaged, and once you get the conversation going, it's a lot easier to then make the deeper, site-specific changes that need to happen."

In 2004 Poticha took the helm of the nonprofit Reconnecting America, where she served as a consultant to many of the regional projects, helping local officials figure out how to redirect their growth inward toward city centers instead of out into farmland and desert. (Asked to pick a favorite child, Poticha names Minneapolis/St. Paul, where light rail now reaches from the airport to downtown and the Mall of America and exceeded its 20-year ridership targets in three months.) In the process Poticha and her allies have developed a carefully inclusive vocabulary. They speak of "choice" between cars and mass transit and stress that rural areas are as important to a sustainable future as cities and suburbs.

Early in her career Poticha staked out a starker position. "We are a car culture," she told fellow planners at a Cleveland Holiday Inn in 1994. "Over the last 40 years, since World War II really, we've been working on an experiment in urban planning, and I think that now we're finding that that experiment failed." Now that the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities is looking to Congress for formal recognition and funding, some of Poticha's colleagues fear that the movement will be criticized as demonizing any American who relies on a car.

"The risk is that the culture war that we've been battling for the last generation, that plays itself out in the harshly partisan environment of Washington, will spill over into this field," says Brookings Institution visiting fellow Christopher Leinberger, a developer who first worked with Poticha on reviving Chattanooga in the early 1990s when she was working for Peter Calthorpe, who would later found the Congress for the New Urbanism. He continues, "What should be a bipartisan, economic, and environmental quality-of-life issue becomes, 'Everyone who owns a car is the devil and is going to drive us off a cliff,' versus, 'The other side wants to take our cars away from me, and you're going to rip my hands off my steering wheel when I'm dead and cold.' It's very easy to turn into a right-left, progressive versus free enterprise kind of caricature."

Yet Poticha's movement has cultivated important conservative friends. Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker -- previously a real-estate developer -- became a champion of the new urbanist revival of his city and made it a national success story. Corker now sits on the U.S. Senate Banking Committee.

Sometime soon, Banking Committee Chair Christopher Dodd will take up the bill to give Poticha's office real status and funding. And Dodd has already told Poticha: "I want this to be one of my legacies."

***

Los Angeles voters did something remarkable in 2008, even as the California economy crumbled: Two-thirds voted to increase sales taxes one-half of a percent to fund a mass-transit system from Inglewood to the San Fernando Valley. The California transit agency hired Reconnecting America, then under Poticha's leadership, to take stock of neighborhoods surrounding 71 stations along the light-rail and bus lines. At each stop her team asked: Will people who live here save money, drive less, and ride transit more? Will residents have an easier time getting to work and back? And will residents of all incomes be able to live here?

That last question is especially tough to answer in the affirmative. In a world of increasing gas prices, interminable highway traffic, and rising appreciation among the well-heeled for the pleasures of urban life, proximity to public transit is a goldmine. Transit-oriented development brings higher rents -- and makes low-income residents vulnerable to displacement, pushed away from the transportation, jobs, and services. (Low-income people living near mass transit are, not surprisingly, the likeliest to rely on it to get to work.)

"The marketplace doesn't create walkable and diverse at the same time," notes Emily Talen, an Arizona State University geographer and scholar of new urbanism. The movement's leaders, notably architect Andres Duany, contend that creating communities that are a mix of mansions and walk-up flats guarantees that both rich and poor will find a home there. But Talen recently studied 152 new-urbanist developments and found that just 15 percent of them included any housing affordable to someone making the median income for that region.

Not included in that count are thousands of affordable homes New Urbanists built in their past encounter with HUD under HOPE VI, the multibillion-dollar public-housing demolition program. In the 1990s, HUD recruited the Congress for the New Urbanism to devise design standards and train housing authorities to build intimate, mixed-income communities to replace decrepit public housing. New Urbanist architects used the federal subsidies to bring their design principles to some of the poorest streets in the nation but in doing so, consigned many former residents to live far from their social networks and, often, transit.

Having taken the lessons of HOPE VI to heart, Poticha asked the Senate Banking Committee last year to put up new money to create and protect affordable housing near transit -- for instance, through a fund that cities could use to buy land near planned rail stations before it's priced out of reach. In Denver, where she advised the local transit agency to do just that, advocates were able to win a $15 million land-acquisition fund. "Shelley is a rare individual able to think about things both from the market practicality perspective and the perspective on how things impact low- and moderate-income people," says Robin Kniech of the Denver community-labor advocacy group FRESC. "It's rare in any venue. The fact that it's inside the administration is invaluable."

But until more public money comes into play, cities are going to struggle to keep affordable housing in the mix. Los Angeles wanted to require some developers to include affordable housing and allow others to build bigger buildings than are otherwise permitted in exchange for setting aside low-cost apartments. But last year, state courts ruled against the first strategy and curbed the second. One suit came from homeowners' associations that complained the policy would exacerbate LA's infernal traffic problems.

There is, of course, a countervailing constituency: people who struggle to fill the gas tank and pay their mortgage bills. A household with access to transit spends 9 percent of its income on transportation, compared with 25 percent for the car-dependent. Making households conscious of the true expense of car dependency is an important part of the Obama administration's sustainability project. Poticha's office will create a "housing location affordability index" to help consumers make informed decisions about where they settle.

Yet cost isn't the only factor driving families' decisions about where to live. The white urbanites who flocked to the suburbs in earlier generations sought to join the middle class by moving to new, segregated subdivisions. The Obama administration's project seeks to move homeowners in the opposite direction, asking the suburban middle class to embrace not only the urban form but also its diversity -- or at least as much diversity as below-market rent and a sprinkling of affordable-housing tax credits can muster.

Even if local officials are able to stand up to race- and class-based opposition, they also must be willing to invest their own limited resources. Inclusion takes a backseat when combinations of these pressures loom, as they did for former Nassau County, New York, executive Tom Suozzi. Until the day he was defeated last fall by a Republican insurgent, Suozzi made the "new suburbia" his governing theme, telling Long Islanders that their future depended on embracing density and affordable housing in "cool downtowns." But when the county vacated and prepared to sell to developers a 25-acre social-service compound in the middle of almost-all-white Garden City, walking distance from a Long Island Rail Road station, the county also put restrictions in place that made it impossible for affordable housing to be built on the site, according to a discrimination suit filed by ACORN.

Suozzi declined to comment for this story. But in his deposition in the ACORN case, which is ongoing, Suozzi said: "We were not interested in building affordable housing there. We were interested in generating the maximum revenues. ... That was the purpose of selling that property."

As cities and counties suffer budget shortfalls, some are also curtailing their big transit plans. In Denver, which the EPA, DOT, and HUD chiefs honored on their "sustainability tour" last fall, the voter-approved sales tax increase is falling short of funding the full light-rail system, as costs go up and revenues decline.

***

Usually federal agencies announce their grant programs from on high and ask applicants to grovel. This spring Poticha took an early draft of her funding notice and published it on HUD's website as part of a comment-seeking process that generated a stack of feedback 2 feet high. The culture of information-sharing has helped bring together housing and transportation people, who usually live in separate bubbles. Even if they don't understand one another's acronyms and program formulas, they can find a common set of goals and ways to achieve them.

In the stimulus, most transportation spending went to roads and highways because state agencies already had plans ready. But for the first time, a single program, called Transportation Investments for Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER), supported any mode of travel a local government cared to pursue, from rapid bus transit to bike lanes. Its $1.5 billion in grants lured proposals from unlikely places -- like a plan in Lee County, Florida, the state's foreclosure epicenter and a place with no mass transit to speak of, to put passenger service on an unused rail track. It was the brainchild of a retired Boston transit official, Carla Johnston, who served on a local planning board. "This is a group of people who hate everything the federal government does," Johnston says. "And I asked them: How can we possibly not apply? This is our money."

While the Lee County proposal lost out to the Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail, it passed the planning board unanimously and will be resubmitted. This year, DOT and HUD are coordinating $640 million in transportation spending, with projects that promote the livability principles getting equal ranking with those that keep existing infrastructure maintained. It's a preliminary to the big prize: the eventual reauthorization of federal transportation funding. While the possibilities are limited by stagnant gas-tax revenues, champions still hope that a big piece of the pie will be devoted to mass transit.

The HUD/DOT/EPA sustainability partnership is expected to make such funding contingent on aggressive development plans. "If a local community wants a big transit investment and wants federal participation, they will have to show that the area around transit will be developed and that they'll recapture some of that value through taxation," says David Goldberg of the advocacy group Smart Growth America.

But mostly the administration is moving to do things for which it doesn't have to ask Congress to pay, such as influencing consumer choices through devices like the location-efficient mortgage, which gives homebuyers who settle near mass transit more borrowing power. The Obama administration is betting that such gestures can influence individual decision-making on a large scale by tilting economics to favor certain geographic choices over others.

History suggests that the landscape changes when economic habits become cultural ones, so ingrained that most of us don't realize why we act as we do. Where's that tipping point for Poticha's brand of new urbanism? Uncharacteristically, she pauses to reach for an answer. The precedents she points to -- urban cycling, slow food -- suggest an understanding that a vast gulf still must be crossed between the lifestyle choices of those with that luxury and the majority for whom a single-family home in the suburbs is still synonymous with success.

"In my mind there's just a big myth that we can't change," Poticha says. "That isn't true. If we give people better information about making choices and then we deliver some options for them, there are just a lot more ways that we can grow our communities."

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