Muted. That was the reaction of the affordable development community to the resignation of Alphonso Jackson as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In fact, there was a general sense of caution among them about saying anything negative on the record.
The housing authorities had quite the different reaction — most were happy to see Jackson go. "There has been a deliberate policy to undermine the stability of the public housing program and obviously, Congress has been fighting with the administration on adequately funding the voucher program," says Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.
One thing is certain: Both groups don't expect much from the newly named HUD leader Steven Preston. "He's going to be a caretaker; he has great credibility, and he's been a problem solver, [but] I wonder what he's going to be able to accomplish," says Bob Greer, president for Michaels Development, an affordable builder based in Marlton, N.J.
If Preston does accomplish anything, it will probably be taking steps to solve the mortgage crisis. "I have a feeling that the single-family side will take up the majority of [his] time," says Patrick Sheridan, senior vice president of housing development for Volunteers of America, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va.
Developers: HUD Needs to Take Leadership
Still, not all developers were unsuccessful during Jackson's reign. In fact, Sheridan says his group had some success with HUD. "A lot of that goes back to personal contacts and knowledge of individual staff members and their strengths," he says. "It shouldn't necessarily be that way. It should be that the policies are clear and the headquarters are responsive to the individual field offices."
Pat Clancy, president and CEO of The Community Builders, an affordable developer based in Boston, had bigger gripes with HUD under Jackson. "There's an important role in affordable housing and urban development, and HUD hasn't had enough leadership to play that role," he explains. "It has been frustrating to see the lack of leadership at the top for the last seven years that doesn't enable the department to play the kind of role that it can play."
That left a void in the eyes of many and an opportunity for Congress to create programs that addressed affordable rentals. When the Democrats rolled into Congress in 2006, they introduced legislation to do just that. "Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) looks at getting funding to state agencies with the notion that there's no viable federal government entity to provide a thoughtful role in how money goes out," Clancy says.
The onus, however, continues to lie with HUD to execute these programs. "The implementation of any bills that do get passed will be vitality important," Sheridan says. "Will HUD be able to implement these bills quickly enough to have an impact?"
Greer of Michaels Development agrees. "It's my hope that whoever sits in the chair will be aware that affordable rental housing should be a top priority at HUD, not just home ownership," he says.
Housing Authorities: Industry Must Look to the Future
Taking more responsibility for implementing solutions wouldn't solve the bigger problem, housing authorities say. The problem is that the priorities at HUD under the new administration need to change.
"There is a serious flaw in the way HUD administers and advocates — or fails to advocate — for the public housing program," says Jon Gresley, executive director of the Oakland (Calif.) Housing Authority. "The next administration [is] going to have to change the way it administers the public housing program and oversees it."
One of the top priorities of the next administration must be to establish a national housing trust fund and ensure its funding, says Sheila Crowley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition. "We are really looking for someone who is a real serious professional," she explains. "We don't want [HUD] to be a political throwaway agency."
Nicholas A. Calace adds that, right now, HUD is in a holding pattern. "We are probably going to go sideways until next January," says the executive director of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Housing Authority. "I don't see [Jackson's] departure as good or bad; I just see it as more of the same."
Additional reporting by Rachel Z. Azoff
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