Friday, September 17, 2010

Livable Communities--or Just Another Government Take Over?

Chris Dodd, whose name is permanently affixed to the financial reform bill that is going to reshape lending and access to credit in the United States, wants to dictate more than how we finance our homes.  It seems that the retiring Senator also wants to control where and how we are allowed to live.  That seems to be the focus of his final bill, S 1619, which was approved through the Senate Banking Committee on August 3 and is expected to go to a vote in the full Senate next week.

The Livable Communities  Act "Creating Better and More Affordable Places to Live and Work and Raise Families," has a price tag of several billion dollars in grants which the federal government will make available to local communities to update zoning, land use, and building code enforcement.  The Comprehensive Planning Grant Program will authorize grants of up to $475 million in competitive grants over four years for community planning that will incorporate "long term affordable and accessible housing, community and economic development, and environmental needs."  All types of communities are encouraged to apply--rural, suburban and urban.

The Challenge Grant Program will provide 2.2 billion in competitive grants over three years to help communities create affordable housing, develop public transit, create pedestrian and bicycle walkways, and foster economic development.  Communities which are not ready for a complete regional developmental plan can apply for smaller grants to update building codes, zoning laws and land use laws.  The purpose of these targeted grants would be to improve building code enforcement and energy efficiency.

The whole idea of allocating billions of dollars to sustainable living programs at a time when the U.S. is already dealing with staggering deficits seems ridiculous.   But there is a level of "Big Brother" control in this bill that is just downright scary.  On August 3, Chris Dodd read a statement for his press conference which is excerpted here:

"With our population expected to grow by over 150 million people between 2000 and 2050, it is clear that our current path is unsustainable. The Livable Communities Act before us represents a comprehensive and flexible approach to the diverse issues facing communities....This legislation provides for planning and capital grants so that regions can coordinate transportation, housing, and community development policies to reduce traffic congestion, generate economic growth, create and preserve affordable housing and meet environmental and energy goals.  These grants will encourage regions to think about how best to preserve rural areas and green spaces, link commuters with energy efficient, affordable public transit, and develop our Main Streets, urban centers, and suburban communities into places that are accessible and vibrant.  This 'location efficient' development model will also save money by maximizing the use of existing infrastructure--which helps minimize the need to construct new roads, schools and utility infrastructure.  Not only will this save money for communities, but it will also help households save money.  Communities with multiple transportation options will lessen the burden on the family car, and reduce the amount a family spends at the pump.  Several new studies have also shown that homes in 'location-efficient' communities are less likely to be at risk of foreclosure due to lower transportation costs....An AARP survey showed that 71 percent of older Americans want to live within walking distance of transit. More walkable communities that offer access to shopping, medical services, and social amenities can help older Americans age in place and preserve their independence--even while they curtail their driving.  Other studies indicate similar trends among the younger generations and households without children."

"Location-efficient" is really code for the government telling Americans where they can live, work and play.  After all, many cities, including El Paso, Texas, are trying to revitalize their downtown areas and make them attractive as centers for citizens to live and work and play.  In a society with an emphasis on public transportation, it is extremely important to encourage citizens to live and work as close to the inner city areas as possible.  That is really the only way to insure that people are within walking distance of public transit.  The problem is that many Americans have chosen to flee to the suburbs and many prefer to stay there.  But Dodd's new act will fix that problem as each community decides for itself which areas are "location-efficient" for issuing building permits for new home builders and businesses wanting to come into the community.

And the bill will not just affect those purchasing new homes.  As communities take grant money targeted at making the community "energy efficient", local boards can tell homeowners that they need new roofs and new windows and energy efficient appliances.  If the homeowner cannot afford the upgrades, he may be subject to liens and fines.  We are already beginning to experience a foretaste of this in El Paso where a new ordinance for vacant buildings requires that buildings that are unoccupied for a certain period of time must be brought up to 2010 fire codes.  Requiring that homeowners bring their homes up to new energy efficient standards may actually increase foreclosures as financially strapped sellers are unable to get the money to comply with the new standards before selling their home.

Of course, like every other piece of bloated legislation being passed this year, the Act creates a new department of the federal government--The Office  of Sustainable Housing and Communities with its own czar.  The department will oversee development to make sure that each local community is marching in lock step with Uncle Sam.

If Americans want to live in the city, they should be free to do so.  But if they want to live in the suburbs or in rural areas far from conveniences, that should also be their choice.  To enact a law tied to billions of  taxpayer dollars doled out as grant money to enable local boards answerable to a new agency of the federal government to micromanage the local citizens is wrong. 

Dodd talks about senior citizens who want to live within walking distance of public transit, but he does not mention the many seniors who own their homes free and clear but may not be able to afford to upgrade their current houses to meet new energy efficiency standards.  How will the quality of life of these people be affected?  What about families with young children who are struggling to keep a roof over everybody's head?  If a young father working multiple jobs to support his family cannot afford to put energy efficient windows on his house to make it environmentally friendly, what happens?  What about the many Americans who own a piece of land somewhere and have dreamed all of their lives of building a small home on it and spending their golden years fishing?  Will the local board tell them that their dream is not "location efficient" and they cannot build their home?

Opponents of this bill are asking everyone who disagrees with the intent of this act to contact Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and ask him to filibuster the bill.  Supporters don't need to act--barring a filibuster this should pass the Senate in the next few days.

Part of the American Dream is freedom to make our own choices.  The cities and towns in this country need to make their own zoning decisions based on the desires of the citizenry--not the desires of the federal government.  And they need to pay for whatever they are spending on community development themselves--not with federal tax dollars. Private citizens and private business making independent decisions about what the people want and are willing to pay for on a local level is the only real key to creating better places to live work and raise families.

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