Follow the Money

Who isn’t excited about the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus package? But before you start spending all that money in your mind, let’s take a closer look at where it’s actually going. First, deduct $287 billion for tax breaks. Then subtract $59 billion for healthcare, $53 billion for education and training, $81 billion for entitlement programs, and on and on. According to the AIA, what’s left for architecture is $98 billion or less. Here’s where it’s going, and how it will affect America’s built environment.

Policy at the DOE

The Obama administration is laying the groundwork for a sweeping energy and environmental agenda that will transform the way Americans produce and use electricity. At the top of the list are the lofty—not to mention politically tricky—goals of capping greenhouse gases and doubling renewable energy production within three years.

With the passage of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in February, the agenda was frontloaded with billions of dollars for an area that sparks little controversy but holds huge potential for both energy independence and climate change: improved building efficiency.

“Energy efficiency and conservation is where the greatest gains will be,” predicted Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist selected by President Barack Obama to lead the Department of Energy (DOE), to reporters in April. “As we retrofit commercial and residential buildings, as we build new ones ... we’re really talking about 50, 60, 70 percent reductions in energy over the coming decades. That’s a huge amount of energy that we can be saving.”

Inefficient buildings account for roughly 40 percent of CO2 emissions, a fact that has increasingly caught the attention of lawmakers and the federal government in recent years. The DOE has been working with builders for years on new technologies and practices, and last year, at Congress’ behest, the General Services Administration (GSA)—the federal agency that manages government buildings and is among the nation’s largest landlords—established an Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings.

All told, the stimulus funds represent at least a tenfold increase in funding for efficiency and green building programs, says Jason Hartke, the director of advocacy and public policy for the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. The ARRA spreads building funds far and wide across the government: The DOE’s funding streams include $5 billion in weatherization assistance for low-income families as well as $3.1 billion in grant money for clean energy and efficiency projects for state and local governments.

Stimulus funds are also trickling down to the DOE’s commercial building technology program, nearly tripling its roughly $75 million annual budget, says Drury Crawley, the DOE’s commercial buildings team leader. “They’ve been quite supportive so far,” he says of the renewed vigor the Obama administration has brought to the effort.

That’s given a boost to the program’s Net-Zero Energy Commercial Building Initiative, which coordinates with the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and other federal agencies to promote energy-efficient building technologies through technical assistance, joint bulk procurement, and other measures.

The initiative boasts a diverse membership of corporate participants, including Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Whole Foods Market, as well as professional associations such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). In April, the DOE also announced a new component—the Commercial Real Estate Alliance, which includes the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties and the Real Estate Roundtable.

The program’s goal is to make net-zero buildings (which generate as much energy as they consume, through efficiency and on-site power generation) marketable nationwide by 2020 through building codes and advanced energy design principles. In the interim, Crawley’s initiative is seeking 50 percent energy savings now, with the target increasing roughly 10 percent every four years.

Ed Pollock, team leader of the DOE’s complementary initiative for residential building, says the stimulus boost is supporting critcal new research into the retrofitting of existing homes—an area of investigation previously limited by funding constraints. The infusion of cash for buildings has Pollock, an 18-year DOE veteran, even rethinking his retirement plans. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do some good,” he says.

Department of Defense: $5.74 billion 

$4.2 billion to upgrade Department of Defense facilities, including energy-related improvements$1.3 billion for military construction for hospitals

$240 million in military construction for child development centers

Department of Energy: $11.3 billion 

$5 billion for weatherization of low-income family homes

$3.2 billion for Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program

$3.1 billion in grants and funding provided to states for energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects

Department of Transportation: $8.4 billion 

$6.9 billion for capital assistance to transit agencies

$1.5 billion in grants to state and local governments and transit agencies for capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure

Policy at the DOT

The federal government–wide policy reforms introduced by President Obama range far and wide in their complexity and scope. But at the Department of Transportation (DOT), this administration’s guiding philosophy is embodied in a single word: livability.

Since taking office in January, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made clear that the department is aiming for a break from the policies of the past by emphasizing an improved quality of life for Americans through better transportation planning at all levels of government.

“Livability can help transform the way transportation serves the American people and the contribution it makes to the quality of life in our communities,” explained LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, to senators at his confirmation hearing.

In a nutshell, the new administration wants to foster livability by better integrating alternative transportation modes—such as public transit, walking, and bicycling—into the current system. It’s also pressing for improved coordination between land-use and transportation planners at the local level, or what DOT Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy David Matsuda terms a more “holistic” approach.

“We think that livability really forces you to take a step back and take a broader look at what the problems are,” he says. The end goal is a safer, healthier and more environmentally friendly transportation network that’s more accessible to all Americans.

The Obama administration’s livability emphasis contrasts markedly with the transportation policies of past administrations, which Matsuda said largely have focused on easing traffic congestion. “Our goal should not be just to get traffic moving freely on the highways,” he says.

That’s a position supported by the AIA, which has called for a new emphasis on community planning in federal transportation policy. “There’s a chance here to rethink how we deal with urban policy and the built environment, and we don’t want to miss that opportunity,” says Andrew Goldberg, senior director for federal relations for the AIA.

The administration is off to a busy start. Days after being sworn in, LaHood announced a departmentwide “Livability Initiative” to improve coordination among the many existing DOT programs that focus on elements of the livability agenda.And in March, LaHood and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan announced a sustainable communities partnership that will attempt to integrate housing, transportation, and land-use planning at both agencies.

The Obama administration is also working hand in hand with Congress to implement transportation reforms, starting with the stimulus bill, which contained tens of billions of dollars for transportation programs. While the bulk of the money—about $30 billion—was dedicated to road building, $8.4 billion was steered toward public transit and another $8 billion toward high-speed rail, reflecting the administration’s new priorities. Despite the administration’s ambitions for high-speed rail, critics have countered that $8 billion is not enough to build a single rail system, and that the feds define “high-speed” as over 90 miles per hour, a far cry from European and Japanese trains that travel 120 mph or faster.

The biggest reform push is yet to come. Congress is now developing a $500 billion transportation reauthorization bill, which will map out spending for federal transportation programs for the next six years. And naturally, LaHood wants livability to be a “centerpiece” of the legislation

General Services Administration: $5.55 billion 

$4.5 billon available for converting GSA buildings to high-performance green buildings

$750 million for the design, construction, and modernization of federal courthouses

$300 million to build and renovate border stations and land ports of entry

Health and Human Services: $1.5 billion 

Available for grants for construction, renovation, and equipment, and the acquisition of health information technology systems for health centers

Housing and Urban Development: $10 billion 

$4 billion for energy-efficient modernization and renovation of public housing$510 million for energy-efficient modernization and renovation of housing maintained by Native American housing programs and development of sustainable communities

$2.25 billion for special allocation of HOME funds to accelerate production and preservation of tens of thousands of units of affordable housing

$1 billion for community development block grants

$2 billion for rehabilitation of foreclosed properties

$250 million for energy-efficient modernization and renovation of HUD-sponsored housing for low-income, elderly, and disabled persons

Policy at HUD

At last, architects: President Obama has picked one of your own, Shaun Donovan, to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). And his résumé shows a solid background in—get this—housing. And urban development! He is by all accounts a lifer in this field, not a politician like Henry Cisneros or, more ostentatiously, Andrew Cuomo, who hoped to be New York’s governor. Nor is his key credential a close friendship with his boss, as was the case with his predecessor, Alphonso Jackson, who left the department in March 2007 to spend more time with his attorneys on two federal criminal investigations into his alleged favoritism in the awarding of HUD contracts.

HUD “suffered mightily in the past 10 years under people who were not good leaders or did not know housing,” says Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in Washington, D.C. “Now we have a secretary who has a very, very deep expertise about all the issues there, and is a very talented, bright, committed person. He’s not there because he’s looking for a stepping stone to something else.”

Donovan has arrived, however, at an agency whose acute recent changes dwarf the standard shifts that occur whenever the White House switches parties. HUD’s historic mandate has been to provide shelter to the chronically poor and homeless in the nation’s inner cities. But the vast foreclosure crisis is forcing the agency to try to keep as many as 9 million homeowners, many of them suburban and, until recently, middle class and employed, from losing their homes. Through the Obama administration’s new $75 billion housing rescue plan, called Making Home Affordable, HUD is trying to modify or refinance the mortgages of those troubled households to levels they can handle.

In addition, HUD has $13.6 billion in stimulus money to spend ($10 billion of which the AIA has flagged as architecture-related)—three-quarters of which, the agency reports, was handed out to state and local recipients eight days after the act became law. “We are moving swiftly,” Donovan said upon its release. The direction of these funds provides an early outline of the kinds of initiatives that Donovan’s HUD might pursue on a normal day. Energy conservation is high on the list. One of the biggest single chunks, $4 billion, goes to renovating public housing and making it more energy efficient, with $760 million more for modernizing and making energy improvements to housing for Native Americans, the elderly, and the disabled.

The allocation of remaining stimulus money should please longtime advocates of affordable housing and community development. HUD will fund billions of dollars in grants to states for affordable rental housing, community development block grants, and Section 8 assistance. And in a sign of these particular times, billions more are slated to help shore up neighborhoods ravaged by the foreclosure crisis and to prevent homelessness among people who, given the economic meltdown, may suddenly find themselves looking worriedly toward the curb.

HUD itself is in need of major rehab. At Donovan’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) , chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said that the agency in recent years has been “mismanaged and ridden with scandal.” During the Bush years, the agency was all but ignored. More than once since his nomination in December, Donovan has spoken of his department joining “the grown-ups’ table” during the Obama administration. But given the department’s status during the Bush administration, first it needs to be let in out of the rain.?

National Institutes of Health: $500 million 

To fund high-priority repair, construction, and improvement of National Institutes of Health facilities

National Institute of Standards and Technology: $360 million

Provided for the construction of research facilities, half of which is dedicated to a new competitive construction grant program for research science buildings

National Science Foundation: $400 million

Provided for major research equipment and facilities construction

Small Business Administration: $650 million

$375 million for existing Small Business Administration loans, for temporary fee reductions or eliminations

$275 million for business stabilization loans, to help small businesses meet existing debt payments