LVEDC’s Sustainable Communities Grant and the Politics of Job Sprawl

Great news from Steve Althouse at LVEDC:

Monday, November 21st was a day for the LVEDC record books.

Thanks to the collaborative efforts of many talented people and agencies, LVEDC was awarded a historic $3.4 M grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop the Lehigh Valley Sustainable Plan during a news conference held at the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV) in Bethlehem.

The amount was the largest the organization’s ever received.

For those keeping score at home, this grant is part of the last round of grants from Obama’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration between HUD, DOT, and the EPA. It is the last round of grants because Charlie Dent and friends zeroed out Partnership for Sustainable Communities in the 2012 appropriations

So what is the Lehigh Valley Sustainable Plan, and how is this money going to be used?

Althouse explains:

The Consortium aims to develop stable, working communities by connecting workers with economic opportunities throughout the region and bringing jobs back to the cities. The opportunity gaps and the distributional inequalities in the region will widen unless addressed by aggressive policy that is both sustainable and transformative.
 
The first step of this process will be an update to the report titled An Affordable Housing Assessment of the Lehigh Valley, 2007 including data associated with Housing in the Lehigh Valley, 2008. This update will direct the implementation strategies of the Lehigh Valley Affordable Housing Effort that is housed at CACLV.
 
The Consortium will foster transit related land development as a key component to creating a more livable Lehigh Valley. LANTA will monitor land development and pursue ordinance changes along priority transit corridors. In addition, LANTA will be a key partner in the development of the regional Comprehensive Economic Development Plan.
 
A Jobs and Housing Study will be developed by LVPC and will be the jumping off point for a Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. This Economic Development Plan will focus on increasing economic competitiveness and improving the relationship between job locations and housing opportunities. An economic model will be employed to create and analyze various economic scenarios as part of this plan.
 
Finally, the region will become more sustainable by fostering three catalytic projects — one each in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. These projects will directly improve and support existing communities, and increase the access to jobs for these neighborhoods.

This is all pretty vague, but basically the grant will pay for studies, and then (hopefully!) those studies will guide policy decisions on planning and land use. 

It looks like the end products will be an updated report on affordable housing, a Jobs and Housing study, and the development of a Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. The last paragraph tells us nothing about the nature of the “catalytic projects” in the cities, so I’ll wait to comment on that.

You should recognize these themes as the stuff I’m always writing about here, and especially at Patch.

Cutting through the economic development speak,  the basic idea is really simple. Jobs need to be closer to housing and public transportation. And the only way to make that happen is to start adding jobs and housing only in the places where dense transit networks already exist – in the cities.

If we’re going to say that any new housing and office capacity needs to be built near transit connections that people can walk to, this means that cities will need to absorb much more capacity.

With rents expected to keep rising, keeping housing affordable will require much more multi-family construction in the cities, like on a scale that nobody has ever seen before.

All these studies are going to end up making roughly the same point – reducing job sprawl will mean that the cities need to accept much greater density, and the townships need to stop building office parks and big box shopping centers.

The real estate investment incentives all point outward, but we need them all to point inward.

Personally, I’m skeptical that this can work without addressing the thorny issues surrounding the funding of the Lehigh Valley’s 62 different municipal governments. One of the big things that accounts for so much of the job sprawl is that 62 different governments are each trying to maintain their tax bases and compete for employers.

If we say that all farmland in the Second Class townships needs to stay farmland, local representatives will quite rightly argue that they’re just trying to bring in jobs to keep their tax base stable.

Maybe so, but I think the real lesson is that not every little corner of the County should have to pay its own way. If you had a County-wide tax base, it wouldn’t matter at all where the jobs were being added. In Lehigh County, you could focus on only adding new jobs in center city Allentown, and this would benefit Lower Macungie and South Whitehall taxpayers just as much as Allentown taxpayers.

I would love to believe this is going to work, but I can’t imagine township and borough officials are going to think too highly of any Comprehensive Economic Development Plan that specifically aims to discourage further job growth in their political jurisdictions. 

And that’s where you run into the biggest problem. PA’s Municipal Planning Code specifically states that these kinds of regional plans are advisory only, not legally binding. No one can force municipal officials to follow the new guidelines if they don’t want to. Even if the community outreach process brings all the current elected officials on board, there’s nothing preventing their successors from ignoring it.

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