Almost exactly one month ago, in an interview with Politico, Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge criticized how former presidents were expected to assemble their Cabinets. “As this country becomes more and more diverse, we’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in. You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the Black person in Labor or HUD,’” said Fudge, who is Black.
The sentiment underscored a pitch she and her allies in Congress were starting to make: As the chair of the House subcommittee responsible for oversight of the Department of Agriculture, she would be a natural fit for the agency’s secretary, and she would have been the first Black woman to hold the position.
But it was evidently not enough to persuade President-elect Joe Biden, who announced on December 8 that he had chosen Tom Vilsack, who helmed the USDA during all eight years of the Obama administration, to reprise his tenure there. (While away, he served as CEO for a big dairy trade group.) Fudge, Biden announced, would lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (“If there was one [position] that would be a very, very close second, it’s certainly HUD,” Fudge told The Cleveland Plain Dealer in one of her first interviews after the announcement.)
Despite Fudge’s best efforts to assure the public she is both capable of and enthusiastic about the job, her interview with the Plain Dealer was painful to read. Asked what her priorities were at the agency, she replied in part, “You know, deal with the lack of low-income and moderate income housing in this country. There are lots and lots of things to deal with, quite frankly.” In a separate interview, she emphasized that leading HUD would still allow her to work on food security.
It’s hard to begrudge her the disappointment. A longtime member of the House Agriculture Committee, Fudge chairs the subcommittee on nutrition, which has oversight of USDA. She gained national recognition for vociferously fighting the Trump administration’s effort to slash the food stamp program and has a progressive understanding of the agency’s role in not just food production but also nutrition policy, child hunger, and land conservation. In contrast, though the House has a subcommittee on housing, Fudge has never been a member of it: Warrensville Heights, the Ohio town she served as mayor from 2000 to 2008, isn’t even big enough to have its own public housing authority.
HUD is an agency in deep crisis; in need of, at the very least, an enthusiastic secretary. For decades, both Republican and Democratic presidents—including the Obama administration—have underfunded the agency. It has rarely received what it needs to maintain the 1.1 million units of public housing it owns and operates, let alone repair the thousands of homes that the agency shutters every year because they’re too dilapidated for legal habitation. The total estimated cost of repairing the country’s stock of public housing is as high as $70 billion, which dwarfs HUD’s total $45 billion annual budget. As many as 50,000 to 100,000 families seeking public housing assistance in cities like Houston and Philadelphia have joined waiting lists that closed to new applicants years ago; at the behest of federal prosecutors, a monitor was appointed to oversee the New York City Housing Authority, which plays landlord to nearly 400,000 residents. Its squalid, rodent-infested housing has resulted in children with lead poisoning and asthma, and 60 percent of NYCHA tenants say their apartments are covered in mold.
HUD is also responsible for disbursing billions of dollars’ worth of project- and tenant-based housing vouchers and city development subsidies through a byzantine array of programs; managing the redevelopment of land in its possession; overseeing rural and Indian housing programs; and enforcing anti-discriminatory housing policy, among other tasks. And under the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, rolled out during Obama’s first term and expanded in his second, nearly one out of every 11 public housing units is now being managed by the private sector.
Should HUD continue on the path it’s now on, in which it’s colossally burdened and yet savagely neglected at the same time, public housing as we know it may not exist in the U.S. several decades from now.
Though his housing plans never went as far as those from candidates Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Biden signaled during the primary that he might be willing to steer away from America’s grotesque dismissal of a housing guarantee. In February, he proposed turning Section 8 vouchers into a proper entitlement program like Medicaid and SNAP, expanding subsidized housing access to the estimated 11 million people who qualify for the assistance but don’t currently receive it because Congress doesn’t fully fund the need. It would stand to reason that the person leading an ambitious charge like this one would have at least a passing familiarity with the agency’s alphabet soup of subsidy programs, or at least be able to cite the proposal, which was a main tenet of Biden’s housing platform, as one of the agency’s top priorities.
But the chronic disinvestment in HUD carries over to its leadership. The position of HUD secretary has historically been treated by Republican and Democratic presidents alike as a reward for good behavior—more like an ambassadorship doled out to political loyalists than a post for subject-area experts at the peak of a long career. Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros had left public office and was dabbling in banking and Spanish-language journalism when Bill Clinton nominated him to lead HUD. Obama’s second HUD chief, Julián Castro—who beat Cisneros in a bid for Congress in 2001—also served as San Antonio mayor, where he was working when Obama offered him the job. Even the more qualified candidates had only marginally more relevant experience. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who succeeded Cisneros in the Clinton administration, briefly chaired the New York City Homeless Commission in the early 1990s. George W. Bush is the only president in the last 30 years to nominate HUD secretaries who previously led public housing authorities.
It’s unlikely that a president would nominate someone with no experience in medicine to helm the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But such is HUD’s lot in modern America.
There has been perhaps no greater cocktail of incompetence, inexperience, and malfeasance at HUD than Ben Carson, the Donald Trump nominee, political loyalist, and former neurosurgeon who found himself installed at the agency despite having no prior executive, housing, or government experience. He famously conflated a common term for foreclosed properties with Oreo cookies. Almost immediately, Carson’s HUD worked to dismantle the already delicate fair housing protections that are supposed to prevent landlords, homeless shelters, banks, and other institutions from discriminating against the agency’s most at-risk tenants. These include, but are not limited to, poor, formerly incarcerated, transgender, and undocumented people.
Ben Carson’s tenure at HUD was in some ways perfectly befitting the agency’s trajectory, given that there’s no clear vision for public housing in this country beyond willing it into the private sector and out of existence. “This is the big part of this for me, is to empower communities to understand that public housing or low income housing should not be a lifetime, it should be just a stopping point,” Fudge said this week. “The only way we make that happen is by empowering them to get jobs in their own communities.” That’s not exactly a thumping rejection of Carson’s school of thought, which was that poverty is a “state of mind” that people can overcome with enough hard work.
If Fudge finds the idea of public housing unappealing, that probably has more to do with the fact that HUD has effectively abdicated any meaningful responsibility for overseeing its properties’ conditions, which actively contribute to perpetuating the kind of poverty Fudge abhors. The distaste that members of both political parties have for public housing is baffling, in no small part because there is nothing inherently humiliating about making a basic good more accessible to people. Fudge will soon have the power to champion meaningful solutions to that problem, if she can summon the desire to do so. Perhaps transforming her Democratic colleagues’ attitudes on the benighted agency and its purview might make for a good place for Fudge to start.