Ben Metcalf has stepped into a new role—director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

Ben Metcalf
Gordon Lazzarone/Lazzarone Photography Ben Metcalf

The affordable housing veteran recently became head of the state agency after nearly six years at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), including serving as deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing. Metcalf’s new post marks his return to California. Prior to joining HUD, he worked as a developer at San Francisco–based nonprofit BRIDGE Housing.

What sparked your interest in housing?
I fell into a fellowship out of college with a nonprofit in New York City that focused on rehabbing old Manhattan hotels into a mix of low-income apartments and permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals. I was impressed by the way these projects catalyzed positive change in the surrounding neighborhoods, used quality architectural design to facilitate positive social connections among the residents, and deployed case management and community-based services to get folks back on their feet. This work was tangible, meaningful, and intellectually stimulating.

What changes are you bringing to HCD?
California today has 1.5 million low-income households paying more than half their income in rent. In the face of that reality, we at HCD have to think bigger (e.g., how to induce more supply at all income levels) and smaller (how do we make our investments much more surgical—either targeting populations that are most vulnerable or using our funds to effect systems or broader behavioral changes). That’s a different approach.

What issue have you been spending the most time on?
I’ve spent much of my first months meeting with stakeholders and members of the state legislature, which led to developing Gov. [Jerry] Brown’s proposal on affordable housing. On May 13, he laid out a two-part proposal. First, substantially curtailing time-consuming and expensive discretionary reviews for all infill projects that have, or commit to having, an affordable component. And, second, a multibillion-dollar infusion of new resources to address homelessness, particularly chronic homelessness among the mentally ill through an evidence-based Housing First approach.

What is the agency’s biggest program for multifamily housing developers, and how is it changing?
California’s cap-and-trade program generated approximately $2 billion this year through the sale of carbon credits; 20% of those proceeds are going to the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program. This program funds affordable housing that is dense and transit-oriented. With the scale we’re operating at, it’s fundamentally changing the way local governments, local transportation agencies, and housing developers think about their roles and work and pushing us toward vastly more sustainable development patterns.

What was the biggest lesson you learned during your time at HUD?
To have an impact you need to pick a relatively narrow number of topics and dog them tirelessly. Government agencies (and policies) take time to evolve, and you have to have staying power. (Though you also have to be ready with a few “back-pocket” ideas for those rare moments when windows of opportunity come together unexpectedly!)

If you could make one change to housing policy, what would it be?
Research has been unequivocal in supporting two undeniable conclusions: Low-income households paying more than half their income in rent have profoundly reduced expenditures on food, retirement, health care, and education compared with non–rent-burdened households. And children growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are more likely to have psychological distress and health problems.

Why are food stamps, Medicaid, and the earned income tax credit an entitlement, but housing assistance isn’t? I’d follow the Bipartisan Policy Commission’s recent proposal to make federal vouchers an entitlement for extremely low-income families; that would cost about $29 billion a year—a fraction of what we pay for the mortgage interest deduction, which is about $74 billion a year.

Share with us an interesting affordable housing statistic or fact:
In the last four years, the Silicon Valley has permitted only one new unit for every six jobs created. And statewide, we produced less than half of the projected housing need during our last planning cycle; falling short at all levels, but particularly our low- and moderate-income housing need.

Where would we find you when you’re not working?
In the Sierra! Mountain biking, hiking, camping, back-country skiing are among my and my family’s outdoor passions.