Some people have been taking the president-elect to task for naming you, Dr. Ben Carson, as his nominee to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). I am not going to join in that criticism. I have worked in and with governmental agencies long enough to know that prior government experience, or even program area expertise, are neither prerequisites nor sure indicators of success in public service. What is important is a willingness to learn, a belief in the fundamental importance of the work the agency you are being asked to lead does, and the ability to build a strong team who can help you to make the agency even better.

Deborah VanAmerongen, strategic policy advisor, Nixon Peabody.
Kathy Tarantola Deborah VanAmerongen, strategic policy advisor, Nixon Peabody.

By way of background I served as director of multifamily housing for HUD in the New York City region from 1998 to 2007; in that role I oversaw the operation of the Federal Housing Administration mortgage programs and the asset management of over 1,300 HUD-assisted multifamily housing developments in the region. I was then appointed commissioner of housing for New York, where I oversaw administration of several HUD-funded programs, including Community Development Block Grant, HOME, and Sec. 8 funding in the state. Since 2010 I have been a strategic policy advisor with the firm Nixon Peabody. In this role I advise our clients regarding all types of affordable housing production and preservation issues; much of our work entails interaction with HUD both in field offices and headquarters.

What I know from my various roles and interactions at and with HUD over these past almost 20 years is that its programs serve a desperate need; there are some very talented people who work there; that a lot of thought has been put in to how to make its programs work better in the housing market; and that, of course, there is always room for improvement.

The need part almost goes without saying—the disparity between income and housing costs continues to grow ever wider. Fewer and fewer families can afford a decent place to live without assistance in the private housing marketplace. Families are spending upward of 50% of their income on housing costs. At the same time, the housing HUD has financed over the years—both public and private—continues to age and is in need of reinvestment. Housing is a vital part of our nation’s infrastructure, and we must continue to invest in this resource.

Many of the people who have chosen careers at HUD are capable and committed to the work of the agency. I became commissioner of housing in New York after 12 years of a Republican administration. Being an appointee of a newly elected Democratic governor, some people expected that we would “clean house” and replace many of the staff who had risen to senior positions during the prior administration. Instead, we evaluated the capability of the staff, and, if they were doing a good job, we kept them on and in some cases promoted them. Most of the staff at HUD are not political appointees, rather they have chosen to work at the federal housing agency because they believe in its mission and care about the impact they are having on communities.

One thing that many of those staff have spent a tremendous amount of time and attention on, in recent years particularly, is making HUD programs better serve the needs of housing markets. HUD is not a singular player in the housing market and often serves in a collaborative and/or supporting role with other actors who may be the primary drivers of what is happening “on the ground” in housing markets. This includes state and local housing finance agencies, public housing authorities and agencies administering Sec. 8, investors in low-income housing tax credits, and lenders financing affordable housing. Oftentimes these other actors are working to preserve older HUD-assisted or public housing—the role that private investment has played in preserving these older HUD assets is a true success story. HUD has to understand how these other entities do their work and how to best work with them to achieve mutually desirable outcomes. The state and local agencies administering HUD programs need consistent and rational policy and program funding to implement these programs in ways best suited to their market. Much of HUD funding is already “block granted” and utilized by the state and local administrators in myriad ways to meet local need.

This brings me to my last point. Having worked at and with HUD over the years, I would say that, like any agency, there is room for improvement. HUD can be overreaching and make extra work for state and local administrators. While exercising oversight is of course appropriate, the time and effort necessary to participate in and respond to HUD reviews can be overwhelming for agencies that are already stretched thin in terms of staff and resources. There needs to be more of an effort to find a middle ground. HUD also makes things more difficult for itself, and challenging for those who it is collaborating with, by being more involved in the minutiae of the transaction when in fact they are just playing a supporting role. If several others, including state housing finance agencies, lenders, and investors, are already underwriting a transaction, HUD’s added review is likely to only delay the process without adding much in the way of valuable input. There are numerous specific examples of ways that HUD makes extra work for itself and could streamline and simplify its work and the time and effort others have to expend when working with HUD.

I encourage you to be open to talking with the numerous practitioners who have years of experience dealing with HUD; I am sure you’ll receive a number of good suggestions for improving the efficiency of operation of the agency. We all are looking forward to hearing more about your vision for the agency and to working with you as you build out your team to enhance the operations of HUD.