As former Congresswoman Marcia Fudge assumes her new role as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) she will face pressing issues demanding her focus. Chief among them will be the urgent need to prevent a massive wave of evictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent estimate by economist Mark Zandi found that 9.4 million renter households were behind in their rent payments and owed approximately $5,600 per household as of January 2021.
Fortunately, Congress has provided more than $45 billion in emergency rental assistance to help low-income families remain stably housed. These resources, along with a number of other measures in the recently-passed American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, will go a long way towards keeping millions of families from becoming homeless.
At the same time, the upcoming federal infrastructure bill provides a unique opportunity to expand affordable housing options. Housing is a vital part of our nation’s infrastructure and investments in the public and private housing stock will provide construction jobs, boost earnings, and increase tax revenues. Congress should expand proven programs, such as the Housing Credit, HOME, the National Housing Trust Fund, and the Section 202 senior housing program. With robust delivery systems at the state and local levels, shovel-ready developments can aid the economic recovery.
While new funding for housing production and rental assistance is imperative, there are a number of measures HUD can take to ensure these forthcoming resources are spent effectively. As a starting point, Congress should provide funding so the HUD Secretary can move quickly to hire more staff in key program areas and improve Information Technology (IT) systems across the agency. Despite having more responsibilities, HUD lost 18.5 percent of its staff from 2008 to 2017--more than any other Cabinet-level department--even as total staff government-wide grew by 11 percent, according to a report from HUD’s Inspector General.
HUD should also use this opportunity to improve its internal operations across program areas. For example, HUD can take steps to streamline the approval process for owners who are acquiring HUD-assisted properties and who have demonstrated a commitment to long-term affordability and resident engagement. This will help to preserve and revitalize more housing for low-income families and seniors.
Beyond relieving staffing shortages and enhancing agency operations, there are three concrete steps Secretary Fudge can take that will lift-up residents of HUD-assisted housing and further racial and economic equality:
- Bridge the digital divide: Broadband access is key to full participation in the national economy, especially during the current COVID-19 crisis. HUD should support affordable access by including internet costs in the calculation of basic utilities provided for households and begin a demonstration program to create wireless networks in affordable housing properties and surrounding neighborhoods.
- Expand resident services: Resident Services Coordinators (RCS) play a key role by connecting low-income residents to community programs that focus on employment, education, health care, and civic engagement. HUD should begin a pilot program to provide Resident Services Coordinators in family properties modeled on the successful grant program for senior housing.
- Help families achieve economic mobility: HUD should finalize new regulations for the Family Self-Sufficiency Program (FSS), which provides a powerful incentive for low-income families to increase their earnings and build assets. Congress recently expanded this program to private, multifamily owners and now is the ideal time to ramp-up efforts to engage more families in achieving economic mobility, including the ability to own a home. POAH’s own program has yielded impressive results: in just three years, FSS participants have increased their earnings by 60%, increased full-time employment by 34%, and added nearly $7,000 per household to a savings account.
Secretary Fudge enters her new job amid a growing housing crisis that is affecting all areas of the country, including urban, suburban, and rural communities. With new federal leadership and expanded resources, there is great hope that HUD can play a leadership role in achieving better housing opportunities for millions of low-income families, seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities.