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Moderate-Income Housing Advocates Herald New Federal Proposal

DON STACOM

August 18, 2009

HARTFORD - Advocates for moderate-income housing, "Smart Growth" and transit-oriented development are all heralding a new federal proposal modeled along the lines of the state's HOMEConnecticut program.

The so-called Livable Communities Act would offer federal money to communities that encourage affordable housing development clustered near public transportation.

Proponents say it will reduce suburban sprawl, preserve green spaces, cut carbon output and pollution, reduce traffic congestion and help wean America from dependence on increasingly expensive oil from the Middle East.

David Fink of the Connecticut-based Partnership for Strong Communities described the bill as "manna from heaven," saying it produces a way to marry housing, transit and environmental policy.

"[That] relationship is essential to the nation's long-term economic prosperity," New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said.

Just a few days before undergoing prostate cancer surgery, U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd introduced the bill in the Senate. If it gets through both houses of Congress and is signed by President Barack Obama, it would create competitive grants that towns and regions could use to create long-term development plans that link land use, economic development, housing and transportation. It would also set up federal grants to help communities add bikeways and sidewalks, redevelop polluted or abandoned industrial properties and attract private builders for commercial and residential development near train stations.

On the state level, HOMEConnecticut offers grants to Connecticut communities for planning high-density development zones near mass transit. Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget office has suspended payments and new applications because of the budget crisis, but the initiative itself has relatively widespread support.

Wallingford and Old Saybrook are the first two Connecticut communities to pursue the grants; both want to expand the base of housing for moderate-income workers, including their own municipal employees. Wallingford is also looking to reclaim a largely underused stretch of properties near its railroad station; redeveloping that area with a mix of restaurants, businesses and apartments would expand the downtown commercial center, officials say.

Dodd says his plan would help accomplish that goal on a national level.

"As our communities grow, people are commuting longer distances on more crowded roadways," Dodd said. "Those are precious hours they could be spending with their families, and precious dollars wasted on gas. We must change the way we plan for the future of our communities and tackle these challenges with a coordinated strategy."

It's unclear how the bill will be received by Senate Republicans, who have balked at the Obama administration's spending. And while Smart Growth measures have received generally bipartisan support in Connecticut, conservative organizations elsewhere have condemned them as intrusive social engineering.

Dodd's $4 billion proposal is part of Obama's push to get government agencies working cooperatively to develop "sustainable communities," with the assumption that America will need to focus more on future development on high-density, affordable housing near public transit, and less on sprawling suburbs that steadily demand more roads, utility lines and pollution-generating commuter drives.

Most of the money would help communities pay for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, transit-oriented development incentives, brownfield reclamation and similar projects. About $100 million a year would be set aside for the next four years to fund planning grants for that work.

Lyle Wray, executive director of the Hartford-based Capitol Region Council of Governments, praised the measure as a way to improve quality of life while cutting carbon emissions.

"Americans spend nearly two-thirds of their income on the combined costs of housing and transportation and are looking for affordable options to live closer to their jobs, schools and amenities," said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, an advocacy group.

Dodd, who has come under punishing political criticism in recent months, won praise from Fink for his proposal.

"Local control is vital and homes near transit will increase affordability and reduce congestion and pollution," said Fink, whose nonprofit organization promotes HOMEConnecticut. "When the story of smart 21st-century community development is written, Sen. Dodd and this bill will be the stars of the drama."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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