In a month full of transitions in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had its turn last week to acknowledge the exit of one HUD secretary and presidential administration. Soon they will welcome what will certainly be a much different HUD secretary and president.
On Wednesday, current HUD Secretary Julián Castro gave his farewell address, capping the end of his two-and-a-half-year tenure heading the department. The past eight years of the Obama administration and its HUD have been marked by remarkable support for place-based initiatives and integrating planning into federal programs. However, the administration was not as vocally supportive of critical legacy programs like the Community Development Block Grant program.
Early on in Obama's presidency, HUD — under the direction of Shaun Donovan — focused on cross-agency initiatives and targeted, competitive grants that included specific funding for planning. Programs like the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative and the Sustainable Communities Initiative challenged communities to rethink their approach to utilizing federal dollars by making planning dollars and technical assistance available as a first step to larger implementation grants. This ensured that federal investments not only revitalized neighborhoods but also connected residents with transportation, education, economic development, and other critical services.
Cross-agency initiatives like Promise Neighborhoods and Strong Cities, Strong Communities gave communities access to dozens of federal departments and agencies — all of which focused on the goal of improving neighborhoods and communities with targeted approaches that went through rigorous planning processes.
Unfortunately, two years into the president's first term, federal funding for direct grant dollars shrank — or, in the case of the Sustainable Communities Initiative, disappeared entirely. When Julián Castro took office in July 2014, he had the challenge of providing communities with the resources they needed without increasing the already strained HUD budget. Castro helped HUD refocus on providing communities with technical assistance and assembling working groups that pulled in the expertise of nonprofits in the field, like APA.
Initiatives like the Prosperity Playbook aimed to develop an online database of best practices from across the country. Federal, state, and local elected officials met with private developers, nonprofits, and advocacy groups at five different convenings held in various states. These groups discussed what their communities have done to improve housing and community development issues and what needs work. APA was integral to this effort and will continue to be so under the new administration.
President Obama and both his HUD secretaries also demonstrated a strong commitment to fair housing. They pushed forward an ambitious new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirement, which mandates that all communities receive federal funding if they submit plans ensuring those federal dollars comply with the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
However, President Obama and HUD's commitment to the Community Development Block Grant program was lacking. In recent years, the HUD budget request to Congress proposed to cut CDBG funding, making it difficult for supporters of the program — like APA — to ask Congress to increase its funding. CDBG is a critical funding source for communities, and it's unfortunate that the Obama administration did not show more support for the program.
When President Obama leaves office this week, he leaves behind a HUD that understands the importance of support for planning at the federal level. However, the incoming Trump administration and his nominee for HUD secretary are largely a question mark as to how they will address HUD in general and planning specifically.
On Thursday, Ben Carson appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to discuss his nomination as HUD secretary. Carson's testimony and many of his answers to senators' questions focused on personal anecdotes from his experiences growing up in poverty, but they gave little indication of what specific program or policy initiatives he intends to tackle at HUD.
During questioning, several members brought up statements Carson has made about the limited role he believes the government should play in assisting those in poverty. They pointed to a quote from his presidential run in which he said he would like to cut all programs in the federal government by 10 percent until the deficit is under control. Carson walked back on some of those statements, including the 10 percent cut proposal, but he maintained his belief that improving the economy will help those in need of affordable housing the most.
One highlight was his apparent support for the Community Development Block Grant program. Carson praised it for its flexibility and local focus. But he did express concern over fraud, which he believes will be alleviated by improved technology at HUD.
Carson's comments on Affirmatively Further Fair Housing were somewhat troubling. Citing an article Carson wrote during his presidential candidacy, in which he lambasted AFFH, several members asked Carson whether he would enforce fair housing laws. He said he supports the 1968 Fair Housing Act but opposed D.C. officials "going to look for a problem and see if there is a solution," rather than allowing locals to address their own needs.
He did touch on the impact of detrimental local regulations. In his written testimony, he mentioned that local land use regulations that favor low-density neighborhoods are slowing integration and that exclusionary land use polices "based on families' economic circumstances entrench racial segregation."
Carson said that he intends to go on a listening tour across the country to hear from program administrators and recipients as he forms his plan for HUD. The conversation he had with senators this week was a lively but general beginning to what will hopefully be a more concrete plan in the near future.
Top image: Alaska Senator Mark Begich, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Cook Inlet Housing Authority President/CEO Carole Gore tour the Cook Inlet Housing Authority Homes in Mountain View Village, a 2014 APA National Planning Award recipient. Photo by Cook Inlet Housing Authority.
About the Author
Tess Hembree is policy manager at Advocacy Associates.