It's a happy time for smart growth proponents: Two more federal agencies have joined the EPA in throwing their weight behind the movement, which advocates compact development as an alternative to sprawl.

This week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a new partnership intent on creating sustainable communities through coordinated housing and transportation planning--and funding. The architects of the joint effort say it will ultimately give Americans greater access to affordable housing and public transit options while mitigating the impact of sometimes-skyrocketing transportation costs on their wallets. 

The average working family now spends nearly 60% of its budget on housing and transportation combined (see related story), a burden officials believe can be reduced, over time, through strategic land planning and higher density development that places housing close to jobs and transit. 

“Over the last few years, many homeowners and renters have traded relatively high housing costs for high transportation costs in their search for affordable housing,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said during testimony at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing hearing (click here for transcript).

"'Affordable housing’ was only affordable when gas prices were low, and the broader economy was strong,” Donovan said. “With gas prices spiking over $4 per gallon last summer, and the economic crisis following in these past few months, combined housing and transportation costs were no longer sustainable--and won’t be sustainable in future cycles of gas price spikes.”

High on the agenda for a newly minted HUD/DOT task force will be dovetailing of long-range transportation and housing plans at both state and municipal levels. Integrating federally-mandated planning efforts will make more effective use of federal housing and transportation dollars, officials from both agencies said. 

HUD will offer planning grants to seed compact, transit-oriented development through its proposed Sustainable Communities initiative. “The recent housing downturn has shown that auto-dependent houses are more vulnerable to price devaluation, as homes in distant neighborhoods declined in value more than regional averages, while some centrally-located homes held or increased their value,” Donovan observed. “For lower-income households who hold much of their savings in their home equity, these declines can seriously undermine or eliminate their tenuous financial security.”

The joint task force will also seek to redefine affordability by developing a new federal housing affordability index that factors in not just housing, but also transportation and other costs that affect consumer choices about where to live. Current federal definitions of housing affordability do not recognize the financial strain that high commuting costs place on homeowners and renters who live in areas isolated from job opportunities and public transportation. 

“One of my highest priorities is to help promote more livable communities through sustainable surface transportation programs,” DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said.

Officials believe a fundamental realignment of the housing and transportation landscape will offer the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by shortening drive times and offering alternatives to automobile usage--a position already advocated by the EPA through its Brownfields and Smart Growth programs.

Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor for BUILDER covering design and community planning.