I first walked into the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) building as a young reporter for a Washington, D.C., news service in 1979. The building itself was as ugly then as it is now, but the people inside were different. Many of them were young and idealistic and hoped the department could do some good. They remembered why HUD was established in 1965, in the wake of riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, as the nation’s leaders struggled to make our cities livable and to house our less affluent citizens.

The agency had its problems even then, many of which have been very well documented over the years. Bureaucratic inertia and political motivations have always been factors, and users of HUD services have lived in fear of retribution for criticizing the agency as long as I have been watching.

Twenty-seven years later, however, the inherent problems of HUD have only worsened, those once-young idealists are retiring, and the top leadership has become even more politicized and less interested in making HUD programs efficient or effective. With funding constraints driving the entire management process at the department, HUD is now little more than a rusting hulk of an agency teetering on the brink of uselessness.

I have never shied away from criticizing HUD’s leaders, but I have avoided the question of whether the department should be abolished and its programs delegated to states and possibly government-chartered private corporations.

As the tax credit program hit its stride in the ’90s, I looked at HUD as a bystander to the process of developing and preserving affordable housing.

But it’s time to seriously examine HUD’s role in delivering and preserving affordable housing. Let’s start by tossing out some old assumptions, like the belief that killing the department would be a Republican ploy to cut more housing funding. Or that government oversight of categorical housing programs is all bad; I believe public agencies can run housing programs intelligently, and I can see proof of that every day at the state and local level.

Most of all, let’s rise above the cynicism that says HUD cannot be fixed, and any other system would probably be just as bad. Most of us have come to accept that the department does more to obstruct than it does to facilitate the delivery of housing services, but it does not have to be that way. And too many people live in projects affected by HUD decisions to let us blithely accept its gradual decay.

It’s time for users of HUD programs, and would-be users, to get involved in addressing the problems at the agency. I know it’s an uphill battle, but the political hacks that run the department today will be forgotten in a few years, and there will be the possibility of change.

I want to prepare for that day by stimulating dialogue about the future of HUD in the pages of AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE. We are starting now to prepare a series of articles on what’s wrong at HUD today, the costs its decay imposes on the assets it controls and the people it serves, and ideas for how it could be fixed or restructured or dissolved and its assets and programs delegated elsewhere.

Please help us begin to gather data and identify sources for this story. If you need to jumpstart your thinking, read about the results of our survey on HUD and its leadership on page 18. If you want to get the full text, let me know. There are lots of informative comments.