HUD Secretary Donovan on track to be ally of urbanism

Revitalized HUD looks to be active force on housing crisis, location efficiency

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Before hitting the TV circuit to help roll out the Administration's mortgage repair plan, Shaun Donovan set out an impressive agenda for a revitalized Department of Housing and Urban Development at his speech last week to the NYU Furman Center Housing Policy Conference.

Impressive, because while he acknowledged that HUD’s reputation is largely tied to the image of failed public housing, Donovan explained that the agency now has a pivotal role to play in resolving the economic crisis, while also provide federal level leadership on sustainable urban development. Donovan’s stance on urban sustainability gives staying power to President Obama’s assertion that “the days when we were just building sprawl forever, those days are over.”

The 43-year-old Donovan brings insider experience — he was a HUD undersecretary during the Clinton administration — and was the Commissioner of the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development in New York City. He is credited with having taken an active interest in the subprime mortgage problem, speaking up as early as 2004, and implementing financial and legal counseling for low income borrowers while most of the country was not yet aware of the impending mortgage crisis.

Shaun Donovan While Donovan’s competence on housing finance will raise the agency’s profile within the administration, he also appears strongly committed to an agenda of federal leadership on urban sustainability. At his Senate confirmation hearing Donovan made the point that “HUD can help develop communities that are liveable, walkable, and sustainable by joining up transportation and housing to give families the choice to live closer to where they work and in the process cut transportation costs.” He reiterated his commitment to urban planning at the NYU conference, announcing that the agency would create an Office of Sustainability to work with the Departments of Transportation and Energy.

Donovan’s call to “restore HUD as a respected research institution” speaks to the agency’s need to demonstrate results, and will provide a foundation for sustainability initiatives. The appointment of Ron Sims, executive officer of King County, Washington as Deputy Secretary is also encouraging. King County has a well-developed transit system, and recently adopted a Climate Plan that links transportation and land-use policy. After HUD was left to languish in recent years, these are all very positive signs.

CNU looks forward to working with HUD on a variety of issues. Such cooperation would revive the fruitful partnership that saw CNU designers shape HUD guidelines for turning isolated public housing towers into typical mixed-income city neighborhoods under the Hope VI during the Clinton years. CNU President John Norquist highlights the success of Hope VI – “Working with HUD on Hope VI proved the value of engaging with federal agencies. It provided a mechanism for implementing new urbanist principles and has improved a lot of public and subsidized housing.”

Future collaboration may build on the LEED-ND (neighborhood development) guidelines, which emphasize the energy savings created by appropriate placement and configuration of new development, as a vehicle for guiding HUD investment toward energy-smart neighborhoods. The CNU transportation networks initiative is also an excellent starting point for bringing housing and transportation policy in line with the nation’s environmental goals.

-Adapted from a CNU Salons posting by CNU's Moss Bittner.

Photo: With design guidelines from CNU, HUD's Hope VI program turned deteriorated public housing into new mixed-income housing like Oakwood Shores, which is woven into the fabric of Chicago's south side. Oakwood Shores is a 2008 Charter Award winner.