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Policy Research Priorities for Sustainable Communities

Insights and Ideas for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities

Executive Summary

On September 1, 2010, Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute and Center for Housing Research brought together more than 50 national experts and policy advocates for a one-day research roundtable with leaders and staff from HUD’s Office of Planning, Development and Research (PD&R) and Office of Sustainable Communities and Housing (OSHC). Participants were tasked with identifying the top research priorities that would support HUD and the Federal Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities as they develop and implement policies and programs that promote more sustainable communities.

Sustainability covers a wide range of potential policy and research topics. In light of Virginia Tech’s expertise and HUD’s policy and programmatic domains, the following three areas were selected as special breakout groups for the roundtable:

  1. Accessible and Affordable Housing – strengthening the policy connections between transportation and housing;
  2. Green and Energy Efficient Affordable Housing – enhancing the environmental quality and energy efficiency of housing for low- to moderate-income households; and
  3. Cities in Transition – regenerating older, distressed communities through the lens of sustainability.

This report is Virginia Tech’s synthesis of the ideas and insights generated at the September roundtable. These discussions were intense, organic, and highly productive; the sessions were part focus group and part brainstorming of original ideas from a diverse group of researchers, experts, and agency officials. Limitations of time and space made it difficult to devise specific research questions; however, the participants reached a general consensus on the creation of extensive lists of potential research topics.1 Although preliminary priorities emerged from all three breakout groups, Virginia Tech relied on its own research briefs and a scan of relevant academic and policy literature to craft a “short list” of policy research priorities (See page 10). Of the more than 60 research ideas generated during the roundtable, the following summary of the short list represents the top three to five research topics from each breakout group:

Accessible and Affordable Housing:

  1. Drivers behind individual, household, and firm location decisions - explore the influence of key determinants of location decisions and evaluate potential policy options to incorporate those determinants.
  2. Policy evaluation and policy coordination research - evaluate policy, programs, and coordination strategies that foster affordable housing in accessible neighborhoods.
  3. Development of cutting edge methods and tools - expand and adapt simulation games, decision theater, network mapping, and diffusion strategies that examines housing-transportation linkages.

Green and Energy Efficient Affordable Housing:

  1. Residential energy efficiency/conservation practice and evaluation - evaluate performance and cost effectiveness of current policies and practices that retrofit existing homes and facilitate building of new green housing.
  2. Capitalization, finance, and subsidy - examine how capital markets and government subsidies influence decisions about green homes.
  3. Commercialization and diffusion - identify cost-effective policy interventions that can accelerate innovation, commercializations, and adoption of innovative energy efficiency practices.
  4. Government Program Efficacy - identify the best management practices for creating green public and private housing through a blend of regulation and incentives.

Cities in Transition:

  1. Typology of cities in transition - identify the different scales, geography, conditions, and capacity of communities experiencing varying levels and types of distress.
  2. Federal and state strategies that regenerate distressed and abandoned neighborhoods -recalibrate existing federal and state policies and statutes to encourage local governments to adopt innovative strategies that regenerate severely distressed and abandoned neighborhoods.
  3. State and regional economic development policy and programs - assess the current state of policy innovation and practice along with coordination and collaboration across government and agency programs. 4) State and local land use and growth management laws for weak and weakening markets - recalibrate current smart growth statutes and tools for weak or weakening market conditions so they encourage infill development and revitalization of existing neighborhoods.
  4. Social and economic costs and benefits of consolidating or decommissioning public infrastructure - explore the engineering feasibility, policy options, and social justice implications of different right-sizing strategies.

The report begins with a synthesis section that sets the context and framing for the roundtable discussions. It outlines the intersection of policy and research and then define sustainability within HUD’s agency mission and the Livability Principles adopted by the Federal Interagency Partnership. After exploring the “short list” of research priorities, the report’s policy research summaries extract the more specific ideas from the original roundtable notes and Virginia Tech’s policy briefs, and places them within one of three “policy research” matrices.2 Each summary highlights a few of the intriguing research ideas and explains the policy connections that such relevant research would support.

Reflecting the roundtable’s closing session, the report’s conclusions discuss how HUD and its interagency partners could better collaborate and coordinate existing research initiatives and resources around the theme of sustainable communities.

Virginia Tech hopes this report will provide researchers, policy advocates, and agency officials with a common framework for exchanging further ideas around sustainability research and policy development. Common ground is sometimes difficult to find given the multi-dimensional nature of sustainability and the classic silos of academic disciplines and agency missions. Moreover, the diversity of the roundtable’s participants highlighted the inherent tensions between empirical research and policy design and implementation. By the end of the day, however, the roundtable participants successfully navigated these potential pitfalls, replicating the spirit of collaboration engendered by the new federal interagency partnership.