Housing and Urban Development Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris yesterday rejected a federal task force's recommendation to create national and regional guidelines zoning and land use and to cut off some HUD funds to localities that do not comply.
Harris told a news conference that land use "historically has been a local matter," but added that she hoped localities "would join with us (in trying to hold down housing and land costs) without unnecessary additional regulations."
Her response came in releasing the 106-page "Final Report of the Task Force on Housing Costs," which she created last August. The Washington Post published details of the report May 14.
The task force said "the high cost of housing is now a major problem for millions of American families," and proposed that HUD set "minimal standards for the residential elements of local land-use regulations."
Under those guidelines, HUD would tell localities not to require that garages be built with new houses and to allow small houses and lots and high-density buildings such as row houses and garden apartments.
After the national guidelines are set, HUD should encourage regional government councils to develop standards for such things as land supply, housing density, site grading, and curbs and gutters, the task force said.
Localities would not have been forced to accept the guidelines or regional standards, but the report called for withholding urban development funds from jurisdictions that did not comply.
One HUD source who strongly opposed the recommendation said if Harris had accepted it, "she would have been out on a limb and would have gotten clobbered," because it would generate opposition a large federal intrusion into local affairs.
Harris, however, praised the task force for its work and said she has asked the HUD assistant secretaries to report within 10 business days on how to whether to implement most of the report's 150 recommendations.
Some already have been adopted, she said, citing a recent HUD decision to be more flexible in requiring long and costly environmental impact statements from developers of big housing projects. In the past, developers of 500-unit projects had to file such a statement. Now the size of the community also will determine the need for the statement so that developers constructing projects under 1,500 units in cities of 1 million people would not have to file one.
Another recommendation she accepted is that HUD encourage localities to use community development funds to buy large tracts of land far in advance of actual construction of subsidized housing so they can save on lands costs.
Harris also said HUD would work with model code groups to revise the nationally recognized code for one-family and two-family dwellings to eliminate requirements that add to costs but are not necessary for good construction.
The secretary agreed with the task force tht HUD should play a major role in monetary and tax policy because federal entirecession actions - changing interest rates, money supply, and the tax code - have an immediate impact on the housing industry.
She declined to endorse a task force recommendation that communities rather than developers pay for such things as large sewer and water lines and streets that go into new housing developments. "The equity is not just on one side," she said. "I think that's one issue the communities should debate."
Harris committed the department to leading a national debate on how best to deal with rising housing costs, saying that owning a home "for may can be only a dream."
Asked whether housing costs could be lowered if federal and local governments adopted the task force recommendations, she replied, "If you could stop the esalation that's going on now, the savings would be monumental. We're more likely to slow the rate of increase rather than stop it."