Marcia L. Fudge is in her third year as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Formerly mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, and a member of Congress for more than a decade, she was tapped to be the nation’s top housing official by President Joe Biden shortly after his election in 2020.

Lexey Swall

“One of the things that we pride ourselves on at HUD is making clear to the people that we serve that government really can work to their benefit and give them the hope and belief that we can make their lives better,” she tells Affordable Housing Finance. “That is my real goal in this role.”

The agency’s recent efforts have included taking new steps to bolster the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing mandate, which was dismantled by the Trump administration. HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness are also behind the House America initiative, working with local leaders to use American Rescue Plan Act resources to address homelessness.

AHF: You have a long and wide list of issues to cover in your job, but as you go into your third year as HUD secretary, what is priority No. 1?

Fudge: It’s the same as it’s always been: It’s to make sure people in this country have decent, affordable, safe housing. Of course, there are things like the resources we have put into Healthy Homes so we can eradicate lead and mold. You shouldn’t live in a house that makes you sick. We want to be sure that we have people who can grow healthy, especially young people. We want people to live in communities of opportunity, so they can be in a position to get good jobs and to have health care. It’s the same from the beginning. It’s how to make the lives of the people in this country who have been either underserved or overlooked better. That’s our job.

AHF: What’s a policy change that you would like to see get made this year?

Fudge: There are a number of them. I would say, off the top, one of my priorities for this year is to find a way to reunite families who are living in public housing. If someone has a felony record, when they leave prison they cannot live in public housing. But, there are so many people who have felonies for things that are not violent, that are not abusive, that are not crimes against children, and that are not sexual abuses. They’re just people who may have been in a bad situation. If we can reunite families, we can keep the recidivism rate down. We can let children live with their mother and father. We can create an environment where people feel better about themselves. I think in the long run what we want to do is encourage people to do the right things, to work hard, to try to pull their families through difficult times.

AHF: Rising developments costs are a major issue for affordable housing developers. What is HUD or the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) doing to help developers create more housing?

Fudge: We have encouraged housing finance agencies to assist with low-interest loans. We have increased the amount of the Housing Trust Fund. We have made Community Development Block Grants more flexible. We have put more resources into our HOME dollars. We’re doing our part as best we can, but the thing that I think we are doing best is interacting with mayors to say “take a look at your zoning.” The president put in his budget billions of dollars to encourage communities to look at their zoning because we know zoning changes or lack thereof have increased building costs by as much as 40%, somewhere between 30% and 40%. We’re trying to say “take a deep dive and see if you have policies that make it more difficult or policies that encourage people to build.” We’re also providing more vouchers.

AHF: Talk about the racial disparities that exist in homeownership. How can we improve in this area?

Fudge: It’s unconscionable in many ways that the gap between Black and white ownership is as big or bigger than it was in 1968 when we passed the Fair Housing law. I think it’s a black mark on our nation that we would allow the same kind of discrimination that we were fighting in 1968 to continue today. My concern is that we need to address it in a way that says to people not only will we not tolerate it, but that we’re going to make significant change by doing things like working on property valuation. We’re saying that you’re no longer going to communities of color and devalue their properties. You’re not only devaluing their properties, but you’re taking away generational wealth. ...We’ve penalized people who have student loan debt, primarily that’s people of color and poor communities. It’s more difficult if you have student loan debt to get a loan than for people who may have the same exact amount of indebtedness with a credit card. We have decided that we are going to make it a level playing level. We’ve also decided that persons who come to us and were deemed to have no credit or not be creditworthy, we’ve now said if you have a positive rental history we’re going to consider that credit. We’re working on ways to encourage the minority community. We’re calling out things that we know are wrong. Fair Housing is the law of the land, and we intend to enforce it.

AHF: Can you share an update on the House America initiative. Be critical. Where has it met your expectations, and where has it not?

Fudge: Actually, it’s met our expectations everyplace. We have about 100 communities. The goal was for each community to determine how many persons who are either homeless or at risk of being homeless that they can put in stable homes as well as to put a number of houses or units of housing on the market. In one year, we housed more than 100,000 people and put nearly 35,000 affordable housing units on the market. Each city met its goal. They were conservative admittedly, but they were determined to try to address the issue. Homelessness is a crisis in this country, so is the lack of affordable housing. We cannot do it alone. When cities commit to put those resources in place and to put housing units on the market, it makes our job so much easier. I think in one year it was a great success.

AHF: You’re the first woman to lead HUD in decades. Why do you think that’s significant?

Fudge: It’s been 40 years. I think it’s significant for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that when you look at our largest population that we deal with on a regular basis, those for whom we provide rental assistance, we probably affect about 5 million households a month. Many of those households are led by women. When you think about the number of people living on the street, the number of women have been increasing, especially senior women. It’s also important that people hopefully see someone who is possibly more compassionate, more concerned about their well-being, and has some real-life experience as to what it takes to live in communities like the communities we work in every day.

AHF: You’ve been a mayor, a Congress member, and a U.S. secretary, what skills have helped you the most?

Fudge: The first would be just listening to people. So often those of us in government decide early on that we know what’s best for people as opposed to talking to the people we are trying to help. I think that would be No. 1. As you talk about my skills as a mayor, housing was a huge issue as it is today in every single community. People need housing, decent housing, and you also deal with how to get people to and from their homes to their jobs, so transportation and housing, those are things I’ve learned. As a member of Congress, you learn what legislation can really do, how it can change people’s lives. You pull all those things together, and you can see a bigger picture than you can if you’re just in one role. You see a much, much larger landscape of what can and cannot be done.

AHF: What would you tell a younger Marcia Fudge beginning her professional career?

Fudge: I believe that I would say opportunities always come, no matter your station, no matter where you are. Opportunities do present themselves. You just have to be available and ready to accept them. Sometimes we overlook opportunities because we’re not prepared to accept them. I think the better prepared you are gives you a brighter and bigger future. … It’s always about being ready. Preparation and education for me are the things that I would say most.