U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.” Credit: Tim Evanson

August 22, 2017; New York Magazine

The Trump assault on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) depicted in “Is Anybody Home at HUD?” (a joint production of New York magazine and ProPublica) doesn’t beat around the bush: “A long-harbored conservative dream—the ‘dismantling of the administrative state’—is taking place under Secretary Ben Carson.” This assertion, however, is almost immediately undermined by author Alec MacGillis when he mentions that “despite its Democratic roots, Republican administrations have historically assumed stewardship over HUD with varying degrees of enthusiasm—among the department’s more notable secretaries were Republicans George Romney and Jack Kemp, the idiosyncratic champion of supply-side economics and inner-city renewal.” So, is HUD under attack from the right?

The article offers these facts to support the conclusions that President Trump in particular (and the right in general) seeks HUD’s destruction.

  1. HUD “has seen its manpower slide by more than half since the Reagan Revolution.” True, but the main force behind HUD’s reduction in force came under Clinton through the “reinventing government” project overseen by Vice President Al Gore. A secondary effort to streamline HUD systems was “Multifamily Transformation” under the Obama administration.
  2. “The new president’s then–chief strategist, Steve Bannon, had called in February for the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’” True, but as Mr. MacGillis notes, Mr. Bannon is gone and it’s not clear that administrative deconstruction is any longer a part of “Trumpism.” The swamp is not drained.
  3. President Trump’s dramatic budget cuts for HUD in the administration’s preliminary budget outline are an attack on basic needs. Half true; the administration proposes a 13 percent cut to the HUD budget, about one-third of the cuts proposed at EPA. And Mr. MacGillis fails to mention that enactment of the President’s proposed cuts is unlikely. The sky is not falling.
  4. “And Donald Trump had chosen to lead the department someone with zero experience in government or social policy—the nominee whose unsuitability most mirrored Trump’s lack of preparation to run the country.” True, but…presidents often use the position of HUD Secretary to reward a friend or promote an ally to national prominence. In the New York Times article on the appointment of Secretary Julian Castro, there’s no reference to his acuity in the area of housing policy, but instead a long discussion of political positioning. CityLab is more candid about Secretary Castro’s hands-on experience when he ascended to HUD. “Using Castro’s accomplishments as mayor as a lens to measure his potential as a cabinet member is tricky.”
  5. “Over at headquarters, the department remained rudderless. By June, there was still no one nominated to run the major parts of HUD, including the Federal Housing Administration and core divisions such as Housing, Policy Development and Research, Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, and Public and Indian Housing, not to mention a swath of jobs just below that level.” True and…the same can be said about most of the cabinet-level departments. Far from undermining the morale of career bureaucrats, the absence of political policy makers at 451 7th Street S.W. may be a kind of relief. In contrast to EPA, mass departures are not in the news on a regular basis.

Could all this handwringing be Trump Derangement Syndrome? It could be that Mr. MacGillis just doesn’t understand HUD.

Every administration comes to HUD with new ideas and new people. And HUD survives, more or less intact, because its mission and its constituents are an amalgam of diverse interests. Mr. MacGillis portrays HUD as “quietly seeking to address social problems in struggling areas that the private sector can’t or won’t solve, a mission that has become especially pressing amid a growing housing-affordability crisis in many major cities.” In reality, HUD is passing out grants and contracts to consultants, homeless shelter providers, and mayors. HUD insures mortgages so nervous bankers will make loans to first-time home buyers. HUD sponsors architecture prizes, underwrites academic research in housing, and pays subsidies to wealthy landlords like President Trump to provide housing for low income tenants. HUD staff typically include aspiring academics, consultants and developers anxious to learn the ropes, experienced developers seeking contracts through contacts, and rising politicians who need some administrative credibility. Ben Carson fits right in.

It’s not just the broad base of constituents and interests that makes HUD resilient. Interlocking programs with other agencies make HUD a partner far beyond its legislative mandate. Consider the current effort to merge housing inspection requirements across HUD silos (public and Indian housing, multifamily, and housing vouchers) and across departmental lines with the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program of the IRS. Observe the synergies between the Federal Housing Administration (a HUD program) and the work of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are managed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. For another example, consider the symbiosis of HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity division and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division, which does enforcement of cases brought by HUD grantees. HUD’s Healthy Homes programs link HUD, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Environmental Protection Agency in a variety of initiatives. Secretary Dr. Carson likes these HUD programs, and they are held harmless in the president’s budget.

The thing to keep in mind about HUD is that the agency is messy. One example is that HUD research shows that using housing choice vouchers (an existing HUD program) is the best way to address family homelessness. Instead of providing vouchers to homeless households, HUD doles out funding to social service providers to help homeless households find permanent housing. That’s how HUD survives. Its messiness is a survival skill: Never replace a failing program, transform it.

In the Obama administration, HUD initiated the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which modified old-fashioned public housing (a 1930s program) by incorporating principles from project based rental assistance (a 1970s program) and added a dash of “housing choice” (a 1990s strategy). Voila—a new program that takes its place alongside the others. That’s how HUD survives. Every program has beneficiaries, and every beneficiary is a lobbyist.—Spencer Wells