President-elect Barack Obama, who has been busy shaping his White House cabinet, had yet to unveil his choice for secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in late November.

However, several interesting names have been floated in the weeks following his election.

Several prominent mayors, including Miami’s Manuel Diaz and Atlanta’s Shirley Franklin, have been rumored to be in the running.

Saul Ramirez Jr., a former deputy HUD secretary and executive director of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, has also been mentioned as a candidate in recent news reports. Adolfo Carrion Jr., Bronx borough president, and Nelson Diaz, who has been a judge and HUD general counsel, also have been cited as possible housing chiefs.

These names have come up even though Obama and his team have been tight-lipped as they shape his cabinet.

Meanwhile, HUD leaders have said a smooth transition is a priority. "For several months, HUD has been aggressively working toward a seamless agency transition,” said Secretary Steve Preston in a written statement. “We have established a team of 22 knowledgeable, senior career officials to work with incoming personnel. The team has set up a fully equipped, professional transition office, and it has also developed comprehensive briefing materials, including employee recommendations and Web-based tools to access critical information.”

Preston took over as housing chief earlier this year after Alphonso Jackson resigned amid allegations of playing favoritism with HUD contractors. Jackson said it was time “to attend more diligently to personal and family matters.”

Letter to HUD workers

In an Oct. 20 letter to John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Obama wrote that HUD is critical to the millions of working families. “As we tackled the effects of the current fiscal crisis on Americans, HUD must be part of the solution,” he said.

“I am committed to appointing a secretary, deputy, and assistant secretaries who are committed to HUD’s mission and capable of executing it. I know that the department needs resources to successfully implement the expansion of programs required by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. I pledge to work with Congress to secure resources necessary to meet HUD’s important mission,” Obama’s letter continued.

“Because of the fiscal mess left behind by the current administration, we will need to look carefully at all departments and programs. We plan specifically to look at work that is being contracted out to ensure that it is fiscally responsible and effective. It is dishonest to claim real savings by reducing the number of HUD employees overseeing a program but increase the real cost of the program by transferring oversight to contractors. I pledge to reverse this poor management practice.”

A growing crisis

The next HUD chief will have a tough road. The agency, which has a $35 billion budget and about 9,200 employees, faces a huge housing crisis on top of a sputtering economy.

More than 2 million foreclosures are expected this year, according to Preston.

In addition, nearly 12 million Americans have mortgages today that cost more than the value of their homes. “We are gravely concerned about the ongoing impact that the home values and the tough economy can have on our future,” said Preston at the Mortgage Bankers Association annual convention in San Francisco in October.

After presenting the big numbers, Preston tried to put them in context. The foreclosures are about a third of the 5.5 million or 6 million homes that are likely to be sold this year in the country. The number of foreclosures is more than double the number or pace of housing starts.

“Not every mortgage can be saved, and not every mortgage should be saved, but there are many that can be saved,” he said, citing different industry efforts to rework troubled loans.

The current administration has been criticized for its focus on homeownership and not doing more to foster the development of affordable rental housing.