WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ron Sims has a new job in a new city. But he’s still promoting an old pet cause.
During his 12 years as King County executive, Sims earned a national reputation as an advocate of “smart growth” – compact, walkable, transit-friendly development with a mix of offices, shops and homes.
Proponents contend it’s part of the solution for everything from traffic congestion and obesity to global warming and sprawl.
Now Sims is the new No. 2 at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He’s also one of the point men on smart growth for an administration embracing it more fervently than any of its predecessors.
His track record on smart growth helped land him the post as HUD’s deputy secretary, Sims said. Now part of his job is to persuade more state and local governments to explore it and to make sure federal regulations don’t get in their way.
“We’re no longer a housing agency,” Sims said of HUD. “We’re a community-development agency.”
Championing smart, sustainable development is just part of the portfolio Sims has assumed since he quit his county job in May and moved to the other Washington.
During a recent interview in his new office overlooking the Potomac River, he admitted he still gets lost sometimes in the corridors of HUD’s vast headquarters building.
He said former Gov. Gary Locke, now Commerce secretary, sits next to him sometimes when Cabinet members and their top deputies meet.
And he vowed to stay out of the contest to fill his old job. “They have five good candidates. I know and respect them all,” Sims said. HUD, a traditionally low-profile department, suddenly finds itself in the spotlight, thanks to the mortgage crisis. Sims’ boss, Secretary Shaun Donovan, and other administration officials have rolled out plans aimed at averting foreclosures and keeping people in their homes.
Sims said it’s part of his job to make sure HUD’s bureaucrats carry out those plans, which critics contend aren’t having much impact yet. The deputy secretary supervises the department’s day-to-day operations.
But Sims also has been given responsibility for some policy initiatives, smart growth among them.
The Obama administration’s support for the idea is unprecedented, advocates say. Donovan, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson laid out plans to work together to promote it at a Senate hearing last month.
Pat Callahan, of the Seattle-based Quality Growth Alliance, said their joint appearance signaled “a different, rational approach to growth in America.”
Sims’ growth-management initiatives in King County didn’t meet with universal approval, especially his moves to limit development in rural areas – the flip side of more density in cities.
But Sims said the Obama transition team knew of his record and brought it up when it first contacted him in November about a possible job.
It isn’t the federal government’s role to tell states and local governments how to plan or regulate land use, Sims said. “Even I would bristle at that.”
Instead, he said, HUD intends to use federal grant dollars to “stimulate and encourage” them to adopt new approaches.
The department’s proposed 2010 budget includes $140 million to help local governments adopt new plans and rules that better integrate housing, land use and transportation. The grants would be administered in part by a new office that reports to Sims.
Sims said he hopes some of the money will explore how to better provide affordable housing in new “smart” communities. That’s been a shortcoming, he acknowledged.
He’s also in charge of a new effort to identify legal and regulatory barriers within HUD that inadvertently impede smart growth and sustainable development.
Sims doesn’t leave this part of his job at the office. He chose the neighborhood where he’s living in Arlington, Va., in part because it’s a smart-growth community, near transit and a bike path.
Sims said his shift from No. 1 in a big county to No. 2 in a big federal agency has been relatively smooth. He’s traveling more and working longer hours than when he was county executive.
“But I actually sleep better and I’m losing weight, because I tend to eat when I’m nervous. I don’t have to worry about a lot of things now.”
Re-election, Sims said.