Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comments that he might eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are “campaign rhetoric” and show that he is out of touch, according to housing advocates and others.

Speaking at a private fundraising event in Florida this past weekend, Romney revealed that he was thinking about eliminating or combining federal agencies. “Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later,” he said in comments heard by reporters outside the event.

“Eliminating cabinet agencies is standard Republican campaign rhetoric, but no one has ever actually done it,” said Sheila Crowley, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Advocates need to focus on protecting the HUD budget. The agency isn’t going anywhere.”

Getting rid of HUD doesn't end the nation’s housing needs, added Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.

“Effective housing policies and programs are critical to achieving economic well-being, educational achievement, and improved health outcomes, particularly for low-income families and seniors,” Zaterman said. “Eliminating a federal department does not eliminate the millions of families and seniors with worst-case housing needs who will still be waiting for a decent place to live.”

The country needs a federal housing and urban development agency, Zaterman said.

The National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) pointed out HUD’s varied roles, including providing Federal Housing Administration insurance that allows families to be homeowners, financing multifamily housing development, offering housing vouchers that allow families to afford housing, and administering the Community Development Block Grant program that helps revitalize neighborhoods.

“Although far from perfect, HUD does address issues and support programs America’s families, seniors, veterans, and the homeless need,” said John Bohm, NAHRO’s senior director of congressional relations. “These programs are part of the fabric of the social safety net and would be hard to replicate or merge with respect to the mission and objectives of other cabinet agencies Mr. Romney did not target for elimination.  

“More enlightening would be comments from Mr. Romney and other candidates for office concerning their views on the administration and reform of HUD programs; reforms that yield real dollar savings while still fulfilling an otherwise vital mission of responsibly housing America’s most vulnerable.  The mark-up of the Affordable Housing and Self Sufficiency Improvement Act this week is an example of long overdue legislation that would move the conversation forward.  We welcome Mr. Romney’s comments on that bill and/or additional ways he would reform and improve HUD’s Sec. 8 voucher and public housing programs as it would provide an insightful window into how he, and his administration, would address the nation’s affordable housing and community development needs.”  

The HUD administration declined to comment on Romney’s statements. However, the head of a union representing HUD employees shared his reaction.

Romney’s statements show that he is “out of touch,” said Eddie Eitches, president of Local 476 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents HUD workers in Washington, D.C.

Eitches also cited HUD’s many roles, including fighting housing discrimination and helping provide public housing and housing vouchers.

“Without HUD, where would these people live?” he said. “In addition to supporting public housing, HUD provides our veterans with vouchers so that the men and women who serve our country can have a roof over their heads–and their children’s, too. The housing choice voucher program helps very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market.”

Romney’s father, George, headed HUD from 1969 to1973.