A new leader and a revamped mission may be enough to get the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) back into the good graces of Congress, according to a blue-ribbon panel convened by AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE magazine Oct. 24, as part of the annual AHF Live conference at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago.

”The problems at HUD are very severe, and when I read the articles that were given to us, it’s a human catastrophe in government, and we really have to find a more aggressive way to address it,” said Nancy Johnson, who was a Republican member of Congress from Connecticut from 1983 to 2007 and is now a member of the Federal Public Policy Group at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C.

Johnson quickly added that she was optimistic about the potential to make a positive change at HUD. She said a critical part of reforming HUD would be to change its mission to make it more relevant to more people and to rely more on a partnership between the federal government and the private sector, which has worked extraordinarily well in programs not run by HUD.

The next president needs to choose a good leader as secretary of HUD, said Michael Bodaken, president of the National Housing Trust. He called for hiring someone who has successful business or local government experience. “There are many successful for-profit and nonprofit executives from whom the next administration could draw,” he said. “Ideally, this older man or woman would have complete and utter respect from the White House and of course the Office of Management and Budget. This person should be passionate about improving communities.”

Staffing and management issues must also be addressed, said Carolyn Federoff, president of AFGE Council 222, a group of the American Federation of Government Employees that represents workers at HUD. She said HUD employees suffered from understaffing, poor training and bad morale. “If someone doesn’t pay attention to the infrastructure of HUD, the agency will hollow out, and there will be no reason for the agency to exist." She added that she thinks HUD and its employees still have a vital role to play in federal housing policy.

Johnson called for changing HUD’s mission to reflect a more holistic vision. “You need to think of housing in the context of all the other programs along the continuum of personal responsibility, accountability, and long-term societal need for housing, because we’re failing our country in affordable housing,” she said.

The goal of the panel discussion was to draft a blueprint the next administration can use to make HUD an effective partner to private developers and state and local governments in facilitating preservation of HUD’s own stock of owned and assisted housing, and in the creation of new affordable housing using the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC). The discussion was moderated by AHF Editor-in-Chief Andre Shashaty.

A more detailed account of the discussion will appear online in the near future. Watch for information about future discussions as well.