One of the first tests for Sandra Henriquez and other officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been to respond to a critical Sec. 8 funding shortfall in many communities.

At the end of July, HUD estimated that shortfalls had impacted about 15 percent of the public housing authorities (PHAs) around the country. About 2,400 PHAs administer a housing voucher program.

“We are working hands-on, housing authority by housing authority, to triage and talk with them about what's causing the potential shortfall,” Henriquez, the assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, told Affordable Housing Finance in her first interview since taking office. ”What are the numbers? What actions have they taken? What can they do so we can make sure that families are not terminated from the Sec. 8 program? That's an ongoing, day-to-day, let's-get-our-arms-around-this issue.”

A combination of factors caused some PHAs to issue more vouchers than their budget can support, according to HUD, which noted that nationally there was an increase in the cost of vouchers due to decreases in family contributions toward rents and utilities.

To help, HUD reported awarding about $89 million from a $100 million set-aside fund. The remaining $11 million was also expected to be distributed to agencies on the verge of terminating families from the program, and there was concern that much more would be needed

Striking the right balance

The first woman to hold her post, Henriquez comes to the job from the Boston Housing Authority, one of the nation's largest housing authorities. This gives her a firsthand understanding of public housing as well as valuable street cred with the PHAs, many of which have knocked heads with HUD.

“Sandra Henriquez as assistant secretary is encouraging for us given her track record in Boston,” says Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. Henriquez is a former council president.

During her 13 years of leading the Boston agency, she experienced many of the industry's key challenges, says Zaterman.

“There are lessons that I learned in Boston that I believe have replicability,” says Henriquez. “However, I want to stress that we've got to figure out ways that allow housing authorities to be flexible so they can be entrepreneurial, so they can shape their programs and delivery systems to match what's needed in their localities. It's going to be a balancing act of trying not to be so prescriptive and cookie-cutter. One size does not fit all. At the same time, we are a monitor or regulator, and compliance is important. How do we strike that appropriate balance, so that people can be players in the real estate agenda that's going on in their community? That's important.”

Asked if there's a common complaint about HUD that she wants to address, she responds with humor and insight.

“I could answer that and say, ”˜What complaint? There isn't anybody that has complaints about HUD' or I could say, ”˜How much time have you got to list them all?' Having been at a housing authority, I would say that depending on whom you are talking to you, you would have heard that I was probably a complainer. Here I am now on the other side.”

Many of the complaints are general, she says, with PHAs essentially wanting some flexibility from the federal agency.

“We need to do a better job of helping people get to yes,” Henriquez says. “We need to see ourselves more as a partner and not a hindrance and not putting up the hurdles that make it harder for people at housing authorities to do the work that needs to get done. Can we be flexible enough as a regulator to allow housing authorities to get to yes? If a housing authority comes to us and says I want to do X and this is what it will deliver, but HUD you've got this regulation, this policy, can you help me do a demonstration or pilot program or would you cut me a little slack, we've got to be nimble enough to be able to do that. That's hard for a large organization. It's hard for housing authorities, and it's hard for us. We're going to have to figure out together how we are going to do that.”