HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims gives advice to metro Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

It was the HUD version of: “You need to get your act together.”

A year ago, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Georgia and warned that the state would not get its share of federal grants until it got its act together.

And when LaHood came to Atlanta last month to award the $47.6 million streetcar grant, he told city leaders that they had gotten their act together, and he hoped the state would follow suit.

The latest message from Washington, D.C. came from Ron Sims, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sims was the keynote speaker at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s annual “State of the Region” breakfast.

In an inspirational and motivational speech, Sims talked about his beloved grand-daughter, Amena, and her generation that is going to face increased competition from China, India and countries around the world. Sims questioned whether America’s response will be to leave his grand-daughter’s generation with credit card bills to pay.

“Can we afford sprawl in a competitive world?” Sims asked rhetorically. “We can’t have a debate between universities and roadways. We are human-kind’s greatest experiment. We are going to have to make sure our money is well spent.”

Sims harked back to how the United States has always strived to be No. 1, to be the best in the world. Now the challenge will be for the United States to invest in sustainability.

“America didn’t achieve its greatness running for second, third, fourth or fifth,” Sims said. “We never gave up. We must be smarter than ever. We look today at cities. There’s no place in the history of the planet that had a core city fail and the region prosper. Those core cities are the canaries in the mine.”

Sims then talked about his home community of Seattle and King County, where he served as King County’s executive before being tapped by President Barack Obama to join the HUD administration.

In Seattle, the decision was made to direct growth to areas that already had urban infrastructure, such as sewers, roads and other city services.

Then redirecting his comments to the Atlanta region, Sims said: “Partnerships are going to be incredibly important. The Atlanta metro area has got to work as a team. You can not win on your own. You have to work as a region. Regions work.

But for a region to work, it has have comprehensive planning and figure out what policies it needs to implement to have a thriving economy — policies that include investment in the arts, transit and green space.

“You can be cocky, confident, complacent,” Sims said. Then he mentioned Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit — cities that at their heights “thought they were the cat’s pajamas.”

It was a warning to metro Atlanta to not get complacent and over-confident. Instead, it needs to adopt an integrated and comprehensive approach, just as HUD has done.

“HUD is no longer a housing agency,” Sims said. “It’s an agency for development.”

Today, when HUD gives out grants, it analyzes how communities are linking its transportation, housing and environmental policies to create more sustainable regions.

The question for the Atlanta region now is whether it will get the message that HUD is sending our way.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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