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Building Our Cities Greener

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan discusses a big step forward in the Obama Administration’s efforts to encourage more sustainable development with a $100 million fund for the new Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program.

Earlier this week, we took another big step forward in the Obama Administration’s efforts to encourage more sustainable development as we announced $100 million for our new Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program to encourage regions to integrate economic development, land use, and transportation investments – which will help to tie the quality and location of housing to broader opportunities such as access to good jobs, quality schools, and safe streets. 

For all the implications of “sprawl”—from job loss, economic decline and segregation, to obesity, asthma rates, to climate change and our dangerous dependence on foreign oil—all of them share by one fundamental problem: the mismatch between where we live and where we work. Whatever else we do to address these problems, America must find a way to connect housing to jobs.

 And Americans are demanding it.  Today, the average household spends more than half of its budget on housing and transportation.  They have become American families’ two single biggest expenses.

During the housing boom, real estate agents suggested to families that couldn’t afford to live near job centers that they could find a more affordable home by living farther away.  Lenders bought into the “Drive to Qualify” myth as well – giving easy credit to homebuyers without accounting for how much it might cost families to live in these areas or the risk they could pose to the market.

And then, an odd thing happened when these families moved in – they found themselves driving dozens of miles to work, to school, to the movies, to the grocery store, spending hours in traffic and spending nearly as much to fill their gas tank as they were to pay their mortgage...and in some places, more.  In addition to adding to families’ budgets and time, it is also contributing to increased carbon emissions and pollution.  

In all, in the last century, transportation costs as a share of household expenditures have increased by a thousand percent.

In February, HUD launched our new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities – allowing us to work directly with communities to support innovative planning and practice at the local level and helping to coordinate our investments with other agencies at the federal level.

In particular, HUD formed a Sustainability Partnership with the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.  When it comes to housing, environmental and transportation policy, the Federal government must speak with one voice. This is an example of how we’re changing the way we do business across the Administration – working not at cross purposes in our silos, but together, in common purpose
Of course, as critical as regional planning is, the hard work of implementing plans happens at the local level.

That’s why our $40 million Sustainable Communities Challenge Planning Grant program is targeted to cities and towns.  I announced this program earlier this week in conjunction with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a joint grant program that includes up to $35 million for its “TIGER II” planning grant program. 

Where the Transportation program will fund planning activities that relate directly to a future transportation capital investment, HUD’s program will fund land-use related planning activities and affordable housing strategies that will be linked to that investment. This funding will make it possible for communities to hire staff with the expertise needed to remove barriers communities face to sustainable development. 

The goal of each of these efforts—at the regional level, at the community level and at the neighborhood level—is the same: to advance our shared priorities and values as Americans for the decades to come.

Priorities like jobs for the 21st century – located closer to where we live, so businesses spend less money moving goods and services and people can spend less time commuting and more time with family.

Values like healthier, more inclusive communities – with neighborhoods where kids can play outside and breathe clean air. 

Communities where opportunities for people of all ages, incomes, races and ethnicities are never determined by their zip code.

These are the kinds of communities we all want our children to grow up in. 

If, in this new century, we grow our communities and our economies out of this fundamental principle, then I have no doubt our America and our children’s America will be a strong, prosperous America infused with the same sense of purpose, opportunity and resolve that have always defined us.  

Shaun Donovan is the Secrecretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development