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What the Change in HUD Leadership Means for the Housing Crisis

HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge announced her retirement last month, leaving the role to Acting Secretary Adrianne Todman. Housing has become yet another partisan issue, limiting hopes for ambitious policies.

Adrianne Todman
Adrianne Todman has taken over as acting HUD secretary. (Miguel Martinez/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
In Brief:
  • Adrianne Todman, a former housing authority official, has taken over as acting secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

  • The department administers public housing and housing voucher programs and distributes funding for community development.

  • The administration's ambitions regarding housing have been curbed by lack of support in Congress.

  • Housing costs are rising in every part of the U.S. State and local lawmakers are twisting a variety of knobs to try to lower housing costs and help cities prosper. But big cities are in a period of post-pandemic transition, with many fearing the erasure of the modest population gains they made during the first part of the 2000s. What role is there for federal agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which are theoretically much more powerful?

    It depends partly on who’s in charge.

    In HUD’s case, the department is likely to go without an appointed director for at least the rest of President Biden’s first term. HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge announced last month she was stepping down from the position to spend more time with her aging mother. She also suggested to USA Today that she wouldn't have been likely to get much more done in the role in the next year, “as we go into this crazy, silly season of an election.” Until the Senate confirms another presidential nominee, the department will be led by its former deputy director, Adrianne Todman.

    Like other cabinet positions, the HUD director’s role is defined by the administration’s vision for the department. Agencies such as HUD, which administers public housing programs and distributes community development funds, are also constrained by what Congress permits them to do. Cabinet leaders have important administrative roles that can make or break their tenure, but they also give a public face to presidential policy.

    “I think the role of the [HUD] secretary is really to be the chief communicator and storyteller about the state of housing and the state of cities,” says Bruce Katz, a fellow at Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and chief of staff to former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros during the Clinton administration.

    HUD Leadership Transition

    Fudge, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008 after serving as mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, took over the role of HUD secretary amid the COVID-19 pandemic at a moment of unusual federal attention to housing. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in 2021, included funding for emergency rental assistance and housing vouchers, among other housing investments.

    “What [Fudge] came in to do is live out the possibility of using those resources to do the most good,” says Peggy Bailey, a vice president at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She had formerly served as an adviser on rental assistance policy at HUD under Fudge.

    In addition to getting COVID-related relief funding, many housing programs had new regulatory flexibility during the pandemic, to help get people housed more quickly. Fudge oversaw administrative procedures during that time that helped model more effective voucher and rental assistance programs, Bailey says. Changes that she helped administer — such as allowing applicants to self-qualify for programs while they prepare full documentation of eligibility — are things many advocates are pushing to make permanent.

    Fudge was the second Black woman to serve as HUD secretary and the first in more than 40 years. On an acting basis, Todman will be the third. Female-headed households and Black households are much more common in federally supported housing than in the nation at large. Black households account for about 45 percent of both public housing residents and voucher holders while making up less than 15 percent of the population, for example. HUD programs like those exist in a housing market that has been distorted for decades by official and unofficial racial discrimination.

    “So much of what HUD has to do is reverse and repair that racism,” Bailey says. “As Black women, the secretary and the deputy secretary see the humanity of the people who need the help and understand what we’re solving for.”

    Before working for HUD, Todman was director of the housing authority in Washington, D.C., and later served as CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. Mark Thiele, who now serves in that role, says advocates and housing administrators feel “lucky it’s her” stepping into the secretary's office. "We’ve seen the competence, the calm leadership, the thoughtfulness she brings to it," he says.

    A row of townhomes in Idaho
    There are housing shortages all over the country.
    Sarah A. Miller/TNS

    Crisis Moment for Housing

    The Biden administration set out big ambitions for housing early in the president's term and has taken some steps to address rising housing costs. Just this week, for example, the White House announced a plan to cap rent increases in units that are subsidized by federal tax credits. But the administration’s focus on infrastructure spending hasn’t extended to housing, and many affordable housing advocates are still waiting for a renewed federal investment in the housing sector.

    Public housing projects all over the U.S. have huge backlogs of deferred maintenance. And the Section 8 housing voucher program is only big enough to serve about a quarter of the people who qualify for it. That’s partly because of political divisions on the issue in Congress.

    “The partisan bickering we have right now is unprecedented in my lifetime,” Thiele says. “That makes it an even harder challenge to figure out ways to practically get things done.”

    The administration was just a few votes shy of passing the Build Back Better Act in the last Congress, which would have invested $150 billion in housing programs. This would have represented a “foundational change” in the federal approach to housing, says Thiele.

    Instead, major federal action on a growing national housing crisis seems far-fetched at the moment. “It becomes incrementally harder every year we don’t manage [the housing crisis] appropriately,” Thiele says. “I feel like that ‘big swing’ moment is going to take a bit to redevelop.”

    HUD Role Defined by Politics

    The list of former HUD secretaries is full of high-profile names: George Romney, Moon Landrieu, Jack Kemp, Andrew Cuomo and Ben Carson, to name a few. The performance of each director has been shaped by the politics of the era they’ve served in.

    Cisneros, for example, was appointed by President Bill Clinton at a moment when homelessness was increasing and many high-rise public housing projects in major cities were seen as decrepit, unhealthy, crime-ridden places. As HUD secretary, Cisneros oversaw a shift away from investing in public housing development and toward issuing housing vouchers, which help some low-income renters find housing on the private market. That shift used “logic and principles that have been conservative doctrine for a number of years,” Cisneros said at the time.

    Katz says HUD’s charge in the 1990s was to address public housing problems that drew lots of negative attention to the agency — which meant obliterating many projects altogether. That approach was controversial, but Katz argues it laid the groundwork for a better public image for cities and for HUD. Advocates are now pushing for more publicly developed housing and an expansion of housing vouchers.

    “In many respects, what Cisneros was trying to do by tackling the hardest challenges and the hardest projects was to create an environment in which this kind of support for reinvigorated public and social housing would be possible,” he says.

    Lots of efforts to make housing cheaper and healthier are underway across the country. “No one is waiting for permission to innovate,” Katz says.

    But the challenges are still growing. “These problems don’t get solved at scale unless the federal government galvanizes energies and resources,” he says.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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