Before becoming head of HUD's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, Shelley Poticha served as president and CEO of Reconnecting America and executive director of the Congress for New Urbanism. BUILDER caught up with Poticha to ask a few questions about the Obama administration’s land use agenda and how it’s likely to influence the kinds and locations of homes that will be built in the years to come.

How does the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities define sustainability?

Every community around the country has different local conditions and we have to find a way to support all those differences. From an environmental standpoint at the broadest level, we are looking at how we can build our communities to reduce air pollutants and transportation emissions. A big part of that is making cities where we don’t have to drive everywhere. Commuting represents only about 20% [of car trips]. We should be helping people get to work in ways that reduce car travel, but we also need to find ways to cut down on how often we have to drive to the store, the dry cleaner, the library, the park, and other places.

Is there a correlation between sustainability and economic recovery?

When you look at the regions that are really embracing walkability, investing in transit, and thinking about natural resources protection, these are the regions that are weathering the downturn best. Denver is a good example. Yes, they took a hit, but most of the housing foreclosures are out at the periphery in “drive to qualify” neighborhoods. The city center and suburban centers around the region that have focused on place-making are still doing well--places like LoDo, the Denver Tech Center, Boulder, Broomfield, and similar towns. The same is true for the Twin Cities. They’ve done a good job of focusing on these issues, and it’s helped them create a more diversified economy.

How can we make our communities more affordable?

Affordability is another important piece of sustainability, and we need to make sure that everyone benefits from these changes. A big part of HUD’s mission is to make sure community development provides access to jobs for people who are low-income--and makes it possible for people to live in community that has a mix of housing types while still having access to a terrific school system. The notion that we are creating fair, open, inclusive communities is a fundamental piece of the agenda, in addition to economic, environmental and health concerns. 

What about generational diversity?

This is a huge piece as it relates to expanded housing options. As baby boomers and their parents age, the need for multi-generational neighborhoods will grow. If you are a family with children, your parents might live several blocks away--close enough for you to reach them, and for the kids to go to grandma’s house after school and be able to get there safely. As people downsize and move into smaller places, having those condos or rental units be in locations where they can get around without having to drive will be key. That means having access to health care via public transit, or being able to take care of prescriptions, go to library, or volunteer at local school without having to get in a car.

New transit and land use patterns don’t emerge overnight, and the economy is still in need of triage. Do we have time to wait?

I think one of the big lessons of the last decade is that cities do have the ability to envision a new future and put it into action in a relatively short period of time. Look at Salt Lake City, which is planning and building a whole new light rail and commuter rail and bus system. They are building at a faster pace than anywhere else in the country.  One thing they did was to create a shared vision of what they wanted their region to be when it grew up. They worked very deeply with citizens, the community, and business leaders, understanding that the only way they could maintain their shared values with regard to community, family, and affordable lifestyles, was to think about how they were growing and the kind of infrastructure they were investing in. A lot of the development happening there is infill--recycling old dead shopping malls and strip centers, for example--and it’s not just government-led. It’s happening through partnerships with the private sector. 

Public-private partnerships seem to be the only kinds of development deals getting traction these days. Is that our future?

In the short term, it’s very much going to be the way development happens. This is particularly true with catalytic investments that are meant to demonstrate that there is a market for a specific product type that hasn’t been built in a given area, such as higher density housing, mixed-use development, or mixed-income development. Private developers have a role to play here. For example, if a developer takes the money they would have previously spent on a golf course and instead puts it into urban amenities such as public plazas or community centers, that [shifts the status quo]. Charlotte is a great example of this paradigm in motion. They created an infrastructure investment fund that complemented the construction of their new light rail system. The city then used the fund to make public contributions to a series of public-private development efforts along the rail corridor and downtown.

How do you see land use patterns evolving across the United States? Will our cities and suburbs look and function differently 10 or 20 years from now? 

The meta forces that affect the real estate market are driving toward more mixed-use, walkable places.  Demographic trends in the U.S. clearly show that over the next 20 years, the housing market will focus on smaller households. Singles are going to be the new majority, and they will be looking for something different from the single-family housing we’ve had for the last 50 years. When we start there and then layer on the issue of climate change, along with the economic need to attract and retain workers, a key ingredient becomes offering choices in different types of homes and places to live, as well as different options for getting around in a community. I think we’re going to see more and more regions reinvesting in their downtown areas, in suburban town centers, and in neighborhood centers.

So there is a place for the suburbs in the new economy?

Yes. One of the major misconceptions floating around this initiative is that it is just about central cities. It’s about whole regions. The suburbs are a key part of how we make our regions sustainable, but they need to become more efficient in their use of land. Going forward, the focus will be on how to help suburban communities make it through these market-driven changes, as much as it will be on making sure our central cities are as strong as they should be.

What will become of all the foreclosed McMansions and half-built neighborhoods in the suburban outer rings?

This is going to be one of the biggest challenges we face. According to some academics, we already have enough large-lot single-family housing built to last us the next 30 years. The question is how are we going to make it possible for these places to gradually take on some of the characteristics that we know help create more resilient communities. Maybe it’s adding neighborhood centers that you can walk to from your house. There’s strip commercial development in these places that might present opportunities for filling in and intensification. We’ve been hearing about some communities that are using HUD Neighborhood Stabilization [Program] funds (part of the Recovery Act) to purchase foreclosed homes and repurpose them to create a long-term supply of affordable housing. In other cases, people are recognizing that maybe these homes were not built in the best places from environmental standpoint and need to be torn down. It’s a really complicated challenge that doesn’t have a set response to it. We need to give people the right tools and help stimulate a whole new set of models for how to make these places more sustainable. 

What role can HUD play in the transformation of our built landscape, and what are its limitations?

Our role is to do no harm, and lead by example. One of the mandates Secretary Donovan has placed on this office is that we are supposed to embed sustainability into everything HUD does. That includes all programs, all policies, and the way we underwrite mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). We’re looking at changing the rules of the game so that sustainable communities have a fair chance of succeeding in the market. However, we are not here to dictate that we know all the answers or pretend that we know the way. Our job is to unlock opportunities for a market that all the evidence suggests is very strong, yet thus far has been prevented from flourishing. Through this office, we will be providing tools and removing barriers that make it difficult for these kinds of projects to happen.

Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor for BUILDER covering architecture, design, and community planning. Contact her at [email protected]

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Salt Lake City, UT, Charlotte, NC, Denver, CO.