A chat with Earl Blumenauer about livable communities and right-wing paranoia
For decades federal policy has promoted sprawl through highway funding and suburban homebuilding subsidies, often at the expense of urban cores. This year, the Obama administration said it intends to end all that by embracing the principles of smart growth through a new Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood even climbed atop a table at a bike summit to make the point “livability” is now a priority in transportation funding
But Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.) blast the livability goal as “central planning.” Conservatives elsewhere go further, tying the administration’s livability priority to a U.N. “social engineering” conspiracy.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), creator of the Congressional Bike Caucus, chair of the Livable Communities Task Force (and evil mastermind, according to the UN conspiracy folks), is leading efforts in the House to fund the livability partnership. We spoke Tuesday about transportation options, the free-market appeal of biking in Portland, and the important message about livability in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Q. What are you trying to do through the Livable Communities Act?
A. We want the federal government to be a better partner with communities. It has, shall we say, a mixed record over the last 235 years. After World War II, the federal government was jump-starting the housing boom for returning veterans and FHA was perfectly comfortable with segregated communities. It wouldn’t loan for integrated communities or for mixed-use development. Lots of money for highways wasn’t carefully integrated into the urban fabric, and it created some real damage — along with strengthening the economy and promoting the movement of goods. We want this federal partnership to be appropriate for our new century. We want it to be sensitive to community context. We want it to be all about giving people more choices, not fewer.
Q. The coordination among agencies is to avoid having the Department of Transportation build a transit line in one neighborhood and HUD build an affording housing project somewhere else?
A. When these major developments are integrated and coordinated, you get more value. Housing can be the greenest, LEED-platinum-with-a-twist project, but if you’ve got to burn a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk, it’s not sustainable. We’re extraordinarily excited and supportive of the administration’s effort to have EPA and the Department of Transportation working together on livability projects. This is tremendously important, not just symbolically but practically.
Q. You’re careful to note that this wouldn’t force local leaders to do anything they don’t want to.
Q. But there is a paranoid faction out there that’s convinced that “livability” is code for socialized neighborhoods and U.N. control of the way we live and drive. How do you respond to that?
A. The Republican candidate [for Governor] in Colorado has certainly uncovered a UN plot. [Read all about it!]
This is where the legislation comes in, because the legislation is all about choices. It is voluntary and it will help people demonstrate the viability and the power of these concepts.
We invite people to come to Portland to show that nobody puts people on a bike at gunpoint. No one hunts people out of suburban subdivisions and force them to live in Portland’s revitalized inner city neighborhoods. These are free market decisions that people have made. What we’ve done is provide the infrastructure because for too long, especially in the post-World War II era, the incentives and requirements and subsidies, have gone the other way. We didn’t have a level playing field.
Q. So your response to people who say, ‘Why is the government picking winners?’ is that it already picks winners?
A. Since we first started taking land away from Native Americans and giving it to white settlers, we’ve been picking winners and losers. When the federal government decided it was going to give essentially free money for the interstate highways, but give no money to expand subway systems or keep streetcars alive, or just maintain bus systems … that’s not a level playing field. Roger Rabbit was right.
A. The film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with a villain that was trying to get rid of streetcars, is one of our movie classics for livability. It is totally tongue in cheek but it is ever more salient as we look at communities that are discovering how villainous the plot was in Southern California and Toontown.
Q. So the thinking behind making this all voluntary is that there’s enough market demand for walkable homes and workplaces.
A. You have chronicled a realtors’ survey [here] from six years ago that, gee, people actually like to be able to walk out their front door and get a newspaper and a cup of coffee. That makes property more valuable.
We’re watching a phenomenon now where there are young people who don’t rush to the DMV as soon as they turn 16. The driving culture does not have the appeal it once had to the young. We have an increasing number of people who can’t, shouldn’t, can’t afford to drive or just simply don’t want to.
I admit to having a car. But I bike to work every day here in Washington, D.C., and try to bike as much as I can at home. The notion of it being a choice, not a requirement, is growing in power.
Q. You have an amendment that would direct HUD to look at transportation affordability along with housing affordability in its decisions [by developing a housing + transportation affordability index]. Do you expect that to survive in the bill?
A. I think it has a very good chance. It’s very straightforward, there is support in the committee, and it gives basic consumer information that really helps people. For most people, you cannot separate transportation costs from housing costs. They are directly related. A lot of low-income people actually pay more for transportation than for hou
sing. The more transportation choices near your housing, the better credit risk you are. This is good information for lenders, for developers, for consumers. I’m quite optimistic that we can make this step.
A. Again, it makes sense. When you at the pattern of foreclosure in the most recent crisis, it’s directly related to sprawl and lack of transportation choices. Those were communities that weren’t sustainable. I think this is sinking in.
Q. What are the prospects of some form of housing legislation passing in the next year?
A. I think there’s a reasonably good chance, if we can avoid the gridlock that characterized more than half of this congressional session. There is broad bipartisan interest in fixing Fannie and Freddie, for instance. In tightening things down a little bit but not destroying the pillar of the housing market. Right now, if we didn’t have those [government-sponsored entities], we wouldn’t have a housing market. I think there is interest in doing that, and there is an opportunity to take some of these voluntary steps that give communities more choices.
Q. Is there enough literacy in Congress about this stuff?
A. I think there are more and more people who are being aware. What is important is that we need to have the players — NGOs, local governments, people who sell real estate, who develop, who lend, who have lobbies — to get more fired up. That would help.
In fairness to my colleagues, they have a gazillion issues that come across their desks. What we have tried to do is provide a forum with our Livable Communities Task Force to bring members of Congress in to talk to experts. Last week we dropped word Jan Gehl, the delightful Danish architect and planner, who’s been an evangelist on this for the last 40 years.
But I will say that people who care about this have not been as aggressive and organized as so many special interests back here. If we had half the focus and political action committees of the sugar lobby, we’d be swimming in livable communities.