July 10, 2013

Four Years of Sustainability Progress, But Much More to Do

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It seems like it was just yesterday, but in fact four years have gone by since I got a call from HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan asking if I would be interested in serving in the Obama Administration and help lead a new initiative that would bring urban development back to the forefront of much of HUD’s work; or as he phrased it, this initiative would help bring the “UD” back in HUD.  Without hesitation, I said yes.

The initiative he was referring to was the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which is a groundbreaking partnership between HUD, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that helps communities build stronger regional economies, improve their housing and transportation options, and protect the environment. More specific to HUD, I was tasked with leading the creation of HUD’s Sustainability Initiative, which included developing the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities (OSHC).

What was most appealing about this challenge was that I had already seen the tremendous excitement that was generated by local sustainability efforts, and now I had the chance to work with local governments and regional planning entities to create more economically resilient communities that have a greater connectivity between affordable housing, transportation options and job/employment centers. Our partners at DOT and EPA also knew that with a supportive and willing federal partner these local and regional efforts could blossom, changing local infrastructure investment and community development priorities and, more importantly, bringing jobs and housing closer together so that families can spend more time together and save money.

Little did we know how fast and how far the Sustainable Communities Initiative would spread, or the high demand there would be throughout the country for the planning grants.  One of the biggest lessons I have learned from my time at OSHC has been that people want to live in communities that have strong regional economies, where neighborhoods offer a range of housing and transportation choices and where children can grow up in any zip code and thrive – that’s how places across the country define sustainable communities.

I can proudly say that between 2010 and 2011 OSHC has supported more than 143 grants covering 49 states. These grants are projected to impact more than 145 million people or more than 1/3 of the U.S. population, and have leveraged more than $250 million in private investment and commitments from local partners.

And, I am so proud of our Sustainable Housing Initiative for accelerating energy efficiency and green building work across HUD’s diverse programs.  The team is helping save taxpayers money and preserving affordability through energy efficiency improvements in HUD-assisted housing and recently advanced residential energy efficiency and clean energy goals in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.  As the Plan noted, HUD and the Department of Energy have taken unprecedented steps to implement energy efficiency.  Together, we have completed energy upgrades in more than 1 million homes over the last four years.

It is with mixed emotions that I would like to say that this will be my last week at HUD and I would like to thank all of the many, many partners, throughout the Administration and throughout the country, who have made this initiative so successful.

Despite my departure from HUD and the Administration, the work of OSHC will continue, and the real success of the initiative is measured by what we are seeing on the ground.  Many of the 2010 grantees are beginning to complete their master plans and the results are beginning to make an impact. For example, Tampa, Florida has already identified roughly $35 million in local, state and federal funding to implement numerous shovel ready projects in their “Invision Tampa Center City Plan”, which will transform their urban core into a vibrant city.

In Greenfield, Massachusetts, The Franklin Regional Council of Governments was just awarded a $75,000 grant from the Kendall Foundation to implement their “Farmland and Foodshed Study,” contained in their Regional Plan. As part of the larger New England Food Vision, their plan will help  create a strong farm and food economy and a robust and resilient food system that can produce up to 80% of clean, fair, just, and accessible food for all New Englanders by 2060, while also reaping social, economic, and environmental benefits in the process.

Moving forward, there is much work to be done. As our grantees continue to finalize their plans, OSHC’s technical assistance teams are gearing up to help them make the important transition from planning to implementation.  It is at this time when public/private partnerships are conceived, when State and local governments commit funding, and when OSHC must provide support to help them maximize their resources.

HUD’s Sustainable Housing Initiative will help lead the charge in meeting the agency’s responsibilities under the President’s Climate Action Plan. Continuing the collaboration and focusing on the need to improve energy efficiency in multifamily housing – both market rate and affordable – the plan calls for expanding the President’s Better Buildings Challenge to the multifamily sector.

Many of our grantees, partners and sustainability stakeholders have asked me recently what would happen to OSHC once I departed, and I am pleased to say that Secretary Donovan has asked Salin Geevarghese to serve as Acting Director of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.  He will not only continue to carry the torch for this work, but will bring his public, nonprofit and private sector experience on community and economic development issues to the next phase of this effort in ways that will help transform communities nationwide.

It has been an amazing four years and I look forward to seeing how our efforts will help improve the lives of millions of Americans for generations to come.


Shelley Poticha

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