Lawmakers Aim to Bring ‘Sustainable Communities’ From Talk to Action

When three agencies in President Obama’s Cabinet — DOT, Housing and
Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency — banded together to promote "sustainable communities," the initiative sounded promising but somewhat lacking in concrete ideas.

610x.jpgRep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) attached his green-housing legislation to the recently passed House climate bill. (Photo: AP)

Enter a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), who successfully attached
their green housing legislation to the climate bill that recently
cleared the House. Perlmutter and his co-sponsors took a victory lap of
sorts today at the Library of Congress as a Senate counterpart to their
plan was officially unveiled by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

The
green housing measure aims to promote sustainable development through
several channels. Transit-oriented development gets a substantial nod
via location-efficient mortgages (LEMs),
a brainchild of Fannie Mae that offers to count transportation savings
as part of a homeowner’s income when approving a loan. LEMs, therefore,
help make transit access easier for first-time, urban, and lower-income
buyers.

People who take out LEMs have a lower-than-average
risk of default, Perlmutter said today, "because they have better
control over costs."

His legislation would ask the
Federal Housing Administration to insure 50,000 LEMs and
energy-efficient mortgages, or EEMs, (in which energy savings can help
offset homeowners’ income) by 2012. The bill also requires Fannie Mae
and Freddie Mac to work on underwriting standards that would help make
LEMs and EEMs more commonplace.

"Too many Americans are
forced to drive until they qualify, to buy homes further and further
from their jobs — the result is more congestion, more emissions from
cars, and more sprawl," said American Institute of Architects CEO
Christine McEntee, a longtime backer of the bill.

Other provisions in the legislation reflect an ethos of empowering renters and homeowners alike to avoid over-consumption.

Congress has long favored aid programs that essentially subsidize traditional energy use, but Perlmutter’s proposal would start to incentivize more sustainable living.

To
help put solar panels and other clean energy generators within reach
for everyone, the bill would set up a program to expedite five-year
leases of equipment and offer government-insured loans for homeowners
to purchase their energy generators when those leases expire.

To
help low-income residents save money by weatherizing and retrofitting
their homes, the bill would create an energy-efficiency block grant
program modeled on HUD’s successful community development block grants.

The biggest hurdle the bill faces is the same one confronting the Senate’s broader climate legislation: an all-but-certain GOP filibuster threat that could pull off enough coal-state Democrats to sink the effort for good.

But
with Whitehouse joined by two powerful Democrats on his Senate version,
Robert Menendez (NJ) and Charles Schumer (NY), there’s reason to
believe that Congress could make faster progress on "sustainable
communities" than the Obama administration.

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