Meet TOD: The Way Obama Wants You to Live

Published August 12, 2013

National Review Online

It will come as a surprise to most Americans that President Obama wants to change the shape of our homes and neighborhoods. So how does Obama hope to make us live? The short answer is, “like sardines.” At least that what the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation said as it filed a lawsuit last week against the Obama-supported bureaucrats who created “Plan Bay Area,” an ambitious blueprint to block the creation of new suburbs and force the next 30 years of development in the nine-county San Francisco metropolitan region into a few hyper-dense, Manhattan-style enclaves.

The bureaucratic lingo for this brand of social engineering is TOD, “transit oriented development.” That’s short for letting suburban highways deteriorate while squeezing as many apartments and businesses as possible into tiny neighborhoods around subway stations, so people stop using their cars. With plenty of help from the Obama administration, ambitious plans to impose TOD are about to leap from the Bay Area to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Meanwhile, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new “fair housing” rule is laying the groundwork for the nationalization of TOD.

The new lawsuit slams TOD as a bunch of “draconian development prescriptions” designed to “micro-manage people’s lifestyle choices.” There is a way forward, says the Pacific Legal Foundation, “without curtailing people’s freedom to live in detached homes in suburban and rural areas with lawns and gardens.” Not if the Obama administration has anything to say about it.

I laid out the history, philosophy, and strategy behind Obama’s second-term assault on America’s suburbs in Spreading the Wealth, and explained last month how that plan was advancing in San Francisco. Now let’s have a look at the Twin Cities, where TOD is about to go big in the form of a-soon-to-be-released, Obama-supported regional plan that provides an excellent preview of what America as a whole is in for.

Minnesota conservative commentator Katherine Kersten recently described the emerging outlines of Thrive MSP 2040, a plan to be released this fall by Minneapolis-St. Paul’s “Met Council,” an unelected body that “regionalists” want to turn into a kind of super-government, capable of overriding the wishes of formerly-independent suburbs on issues like zoning, transportation, and education. Kersten warns that the Met Council is planning to withhold the local, state, and federal funding it controls from municipalities that refuse to bow to its plan to densify urban areas at the expense of suburbs. Available documents validate Kersten’s warnings, and provide a close-up view of the Obama administration’s strategy for transforming the way we live.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, Minneapolis offers an opportunity to orchestrate a veritable symphony of bureaucratic coercion. That’s because “regionalism”– the drive to replace independent suburban governments with an overarching metropolitan authority–has a long history in Minnesota. A relatively powerful regional body, the Met Council, has existed there for decades. Similarly, the regionalist dream of “tax-base sharing,” in which the bulk of suburbs are forced to subsidize cities (and a few less-well-off “inner-ring” suburbs) has been in place in the Twin Cities for years. Up to now, however, Twin-City TOD policies have been weak.

By pressing the Met Council to forcibly densify the region, the Obama administration can hit Minnesota suburbs with a double whammy–redirecting both development and governing authority toward urban centers. Minnesota’s full-spectrum regionalist model can then be pressed on the country at large.

Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded a $5 million “Regional Planning Grant” to Minnesota’s Met Council. That grant has been instrumental in establishing “Corridors of Opportunity,” a program dedicated to turbo-charging the Met Council’s push for dense development in the Twin Cities.

While this tangle of bureaucratic structures and jargon is confusing, the bottom line is straightforward. The Obama administration is funding a program dedicated to pressing the next thirty years of development in the Twin-Cities region into tiny neighborhoods around train stations. The same federally-funded program is handing the Met Council a toolkit for forcing dense development on unwilling local governments. And the same toolkit the administration is using to press TOD (dense, “transit oriented development”) on Minnesota is being built into the administration’s newly-issued national “fair housing” rule.

You can see the process playing out in the Met Council’s “TOD Strategic Action Plan,” issued in June of 2013. This document was produced by the Met Council unit set up to incorporate the Obama-administration grant, and embodies its influence. The document also serves as a preview of the thirty-year regional plan slated to be released by the Met Council this fall.

Running beneath the TOD Strategic Action Plan’s 84 pages of mind-numbing bureaucratic prose is an unmistakable preoccupation with coercion. The authors clearly realize that the public doesn’t like dense development. Yet these unelected bureaucrats are determined to force it on an unwilling region. In an uncharacteristically blunt passage, the bureaucrats are exhorted to “be brave,” to stop making non-binding development recommendations and play hardball instead. Minnesota’s Met Council is out to impose TOD by force.

How? By holding back local, state, and federal monies from municipalities that refuse to knuckle-under and zone for TOD. The report holds up the San Francisco Bay Area as a model. There federal money to repair roads and bridges is held back from jurisdictions that refuse to go along with TOD. In effect, the Obama administration’s grant is pressing the San Francisco model on the Twin Cities, and will soon be in a position to do the same to the rest of the country.

TOD takes time. According to the report, dense development comes in stages. At first, for example, there may be plenty of parking near TOD-style subway stops. Nothing, at that point, would seem unusual to the public. In the next phase of TOD, however, the parking lots get plowed under and replaced with still more stack-and-pack housing, leaving residents and visitors with few options besides public transportation. At this point, the report notes, the “public sector” will need to turn “aggressive,” to ensure that parking lots disappear while density grows.

Complaints about “too much parking” run through this report and related documents. For example, regionalist bureaucrats tout an article detailing efforts to double the population of downtown Minneapolis over the next decade by building on existing parking lots. Instead of working to create family-friendly neighborhoods of detached homes with yards, safe streets, and good schools within city boundaries, the Met Council is intent on building a hyper-dense downtown playground for single professionals and boomer empty-nesters. Will that push even more families with young children out of the city?

The TOD Strategic Action Plan insists that nearly all of the Met Council’s money needs to be poured into the TOD zones, “even if this results in geographic inequity in the distribution of resources.” In other words, money that in the past might have maintained suburban commuter highways will now be channeled into TOD.

So can we at least be confident that poor and minority communities will benefit from all of the resources flowing into TOD? Not at all. Even the pro-regionalist, leftist community organizers who back TOD (and receive funding from the federal grant) worry that dense development will price poor and minority residents out of their homes and businesses. That’s why these regionalists are demanding even more bureaucratic micro-management of TOD. Some local residents will get taxpayer-subsidized low-income housing in TOD. Yet the likelihood that dense urban development will raise rents, harm existing minority-owned businesses, drive out the jobs on which many minorities rely, and largely displace their communities, is high. A net gain from TOD for the less-well-off residents of the Twin Cities is far from assured.

With Minnesota a prime regionalist outpost, the Met Council is required by law to submit a 30-year regional plan to the state. Now, however, that plan will also be a federal “deliverable” under terms of the Obama administration’s grant. And the Obama administration requires a second crucial deliverable from the Met Council, a “Fair Housing and Equity Assessment” (FHEA). The FHEA, which maps where poor and minority residents of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region live in relation to things like public transportation and business districts, bears a strong resemblance to the “Assessment of Fair Housing” (AFH), that the Obama administration’s controversial new “fair housing” regulation is now requiring of every municipality accepting federal housing aid.

The fair housing mapping tool effectively creates the density requirements that are forcing government-imposed TOD into the Twin City’s 30-year regional plan. That is, by redefining “fair housing” as proximity to public transportation and business centers, this mapping tool amounts to a requirement that grant recipients build TOD, or risk federal aid cutoffs and lawsuits.

And the mapping process imposed on Minnesota’s Met Council by its federal planning grant is about to be forced on nearly every municipality in the country by the Obama administration’s sweeping new “fair housing” rule. In other words, the Obama administration is trying to push hyper-dense TOD on everyone now, not just liberal-leaning regions like the Bay Area and the Twin Cities that apply for special planning grants. The same density-creating “fairness maps” now required of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s regional planners will soon have to be produced by cities, towns, and suburbs across the country.

San Francisco and Minneapolis are the model the rest of us will shortly be pressed to follow. So get to know TOD. It’s how Obama wants you to live.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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