STATEMENT OF DEBORAH ANDERSON,
WOOD PARTNERS, LLC
PRESENTED TO THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
THE COMMUNITY CHARACTER ACT (S. 975)
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6, 2002
Chairman Jeffords, Senator Smith, and distinguished Members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, my name is Deborah Anderson. I am a Director of Wood Partners a multifamily real estate development firm located in Durham, North Carolina. I am here today on behalf of the National Multi Housing Council and the National Apartment Association, trade associations representing the nation’s multifamily property developers, owners, managers and financiers.
NMHC and NAA commend the Members of the Committee for their work on the important issue of strengthening America’s communities. As I am sure you already know, in recent years the concept of "smart growth" has taken the country by storm. In November 2000, more than 200 ballot initiatives were passed on suburban sprawl and open space preservation. While this is largely a state and local issue, there is also an important role for the federal government. We believe that the Community Character Act under consideration today fits that role by providing the funding and incentives needed to help state and local governments develop sound and comprehensive land use plans.
Tired of struggling with traffic, pollution, long commutes and overcrowded schools, Americans are calling for more livable communities. They are looking for pedestrian friendly neighborhoods with more open space and better traffic flow. They are seeking communities with walkable distances between homes and nearby shopping, schools and entertainment.
Understanding that growth is inevitable, many state and local policymakers are searching for ways to expand without sacrificing quality of life. I know from my own experience in dealing with land use policymakers on the state and local levels that they face complex decisions as they endeavor to integrate all of the ingredients of successful communities into specific land use decisions. Increasingly, these decisionmakers are coming to appreciate that smart planning will require new ways of thinking and new regional approaches.
Many are expanding their community development toolboxes to include important, but often overlooked, assets, such as higher density housing. As a developer of high quality apartment homes, I believe that apartments are an integral piece of the smart growth solution. Apartments conserve land to help preserve open space and create pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. They also use municipal infrastructure more efficiently. For example, apartment households generate 30 to 40 percent fewer vehicle trips than single family homes. Apartments place less burden on local schools and regional transportation systems. They are an important driver of economic development. They help revitalize neglected neighborhoods, create new jobs and provide local, state and federal tax revenues. Apartment homes are increasingly becoming the housing type of choice for the new demographic representing both the aging of our population and the boom in younger households for the first time in 20 years.
Despite the newfound appreciation of apartment living among consumers, many local governments still have barriers in place to higher density housing, such as zoning programs that do not permit compact development. Some rules require housing and non-housing uses to be separated. The end result is that apartment developers, like myself, eager to design and deliver the new pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods citizens are calling for, are often blocked from doing so.
This is where Congress can play a role. NMHC and NAA support S. 975’s creation of a federal grant program to provide states with the additional financial resources they may need to support and encourage local authorities to update their land use planning activities. The bill wisely relies on incentive-based measures, rather than command and control systems.
The bill also properly recognizes the need to explore regional land use planning. Smart growth issues often span the jurisdictional coverage of several communities, particularly in the areas of transportation and economic development. While the need for regional planning is almost universally recognized, there are few effective models. S. 975 specifically states that multi-state land use planning should be facilitated through the grant program. This incentive will go a long way to jump-starting a fresh approach to regional planning.
S. 975 also strikes an important note with its recognition that economic development is an important consideration in land use planning. According to an Urban Land Institute study, real estate capital represents approximately 20 percent of the nation’s total gross domestic product. On the local level, real property taxes constitute approximately 70 percent of all tax revenue. These facts support the idea that the economic consideration posed by development are properly considered in land use planning.
NMHC and NAA also strongly support the legislation’s direction that “a range of affordable housing options” be included as a requirement by states before receiving federal monies (Sec. 4(b)(1)(F)). Communities that exclude apartments and other affordable housing jeopardize their own continued prosperity. In doing so, they squeeze out a segment of the population that is vital to local businesses as both customers and employees. Communities that offer a diversified work force and a wide range of housing options are more likely to attract and retain top employers. An adequate supply of affordable housing, therefore, can be essential to a municipality’s economic growth. The fact that S. 975 encourages consideration of affordable housing options will encourage communities to take a fresh look at their approach to this issue and consider ways they can support more affordable housing. This is particularly important in high cost areas where the cost of land and associated development costs have diminished the ability of the private market to create affordable housing on its own.
NMHC and NAA also support the legislation’s position that the states, and not the federal government, are responsible for choosing how the grant money is to be used (Sec. 4(c)). We believe that land use is, and should remain, a local decision. Each unique jurisdiction has its own goals and priorities, and land use planning should reflect that.
As a developer, I have worked with local planning boards and town councils in several states. While our discussions often focus on common elements -- roads, schools, playgrounds and water treatment facilities -- the answers to those questions vary with each locale. There is simply no “one-size-fits-all” approach to land use planning.
NMHC and NAA support the Community Character Act with the understanding that the bill does not endorse, by oblique reference, any one particular land use-planning standard. We are specifically concerned that the American Planning Association’s (APA) recent publication, Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook not be viewed as the definitive land use guide. APA’s Guidebook contains many sound provisions, but it does not enjoy universal support among stakeholders. Dissenting comments pointing out where the book is unbalanced in its approach are attached to this testimony for your review. The important principle here is that we believe state and local jurisdictions must be free to study and employ a variety of planning tools, as they deem appropriate. The federal government should encourage land use planning, but it should not specify the plan. Land use decisions should properly remain the precinct of the local jurisdiction.
We applaud the fact that S. 975 allows grant funds to be used for education and consultation with policymakers (Sec. 4(d)). We believe there is need for greater dialogue and information sharing between academicians, policymakers and the public on matters such as infrastructure needs; economic sustainability; and how growth policies affect the ability of the private market to provide affordable housing.
We believe the provision to encourage Pilot Projects of new land use planning activities developed by local policymakers will help create smarter, answers to our nation’s growth challenges. We also endorse the use of funds to develop voluntary educational programs, new technologies and new electronic databases to support land use planning (Sec. 5(b)) to support local policymakers who do not always have access to these resources.
In summary, NMHC and NAA believe the role of the federal government in land use planning should be limited to funding through grants. As the distinguished Senator from Rhode Island aptly stated when introducing the bill, “[t]hrough enactment of transportation, housing, environmental, energy, and economic development laws and requirements, Congress has created a demand for state and local planning. In fact, the Community Character Act should be viewed as providing the federal payment for an unfunded mandate whose account is overdue.”
As the Nation moves forward to strengthen its communities and accommodate changing demographics, local land use statutes will need to be responsive to community needs. This bill is intended to provide support for state and local land use planning activities without undermining local land use controls.