Marcia Fudge
Courtesy Department of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge

Soon after taking office, Marcia Fudge, the new secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, met with leaders from several public housing industry groups.

The meeting—one of the first taken by Fudge since being sworn in March 10—offered a chance to hear everyone’s priorities for the new administration.

“We’re very pleased with her message, her energy, and her experience across the sectors that need to be aligned,” says Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA). “She said more than once that housing is central to so many other goals that the administration has particularly around climate and racial equity, economic recovery, and COVID relief. They all come together in this nexus around housing issues and increasing housing stability.”

To HUD leaders and others, Zaterman has been calling for a 10-year road map to recapitalize the public housing portfolio and an expansion of the housing voucher program.

“Our first order of business is preserve what we have,” she says, stressing not only the need but the possibility of deploying a plan to put the aging portfolio on a course toward achieving sustainability and receiving desperately needed physical improvements.

The Biden administration this week unveiled an ambitious $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan that includes about $213 billion in affordable housing investments. In the American Jobs Plan, Biden calls on Congress to invest $40 billion to improve the public housing system. Fudge will be one of the cabinet members working with Congress and engaging the public on the plan.

Public housing leaders say they will be closely watching the infrastructure plan as well as the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget to see what is committed to housing.

Another CLPHA priority is housing production, which can be housing vouchers or additional subsidy plus capital, such as low-income housing tax credit equity, National Housing Trust Fund money, or other sources, according to Zaterman. “In terms of expanding the supply for the populations that we serve, we’re going to need a robust and organized way to marry subsidy and capital,” she says. “We can do that possibly through the expansion of the voucher program by including the ability to project-base, which now we’re using to a significant degree through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program and through other preservation strategies.”

Fudge was tapped by the administration to be the nation’s top housing official after serving in the House of Representatives for more than decade. Before joining Congress, she was mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio.

At the recent meeting, Fudge demonstrated her experience and knowledge even though her HUD tenure is just beginning. “She speaks our language, which is refreshing and exciting,” says Sunny Shaw, president of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. “She’s very aware of our issues.”

Representatives of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association and the MTW (Moving to Work) Collaborative also took part in the meeting.

Fudge spoke about the demographics of the families served by public housing programs and the challenges they face, according to Shaw, who is executive director of the Housing Alliance and Community Partnerships in Pocatello, Idaho.

“We brought up various issues that we are hoping will be on her radar in the coming years. Specifically, we talked about the $70 billion backlog of capital funding needs for public housing, and we also talked about how helpful the recent HUD waivers have been for housing authorities to be able to do their work quickly,” Shaw says. “Those flexibilities have allowed us to focus on getting families and individuals housed during the pandemic.”

In turn, Fudge said it was important for the public housing authorities to efficiently deploy the new resources that are coming from the American Rescue Plan, according to Shaw. The latest relief package includes $27.4 billion for rental assistance and $5 billion in homelessness assistance.

While it’s not unusual for association leaders to meet with a new secretary, this time was different because the session was a video conference made necessary by COVID-19.

The health crisis has also elevated the case that people must be sheltered. “They must have decent housing,” Zaterman says, noting the recent investments being made in rental assistance and other federal and state programs.

The scale and the recognition that people must be housed looks to be a central focus of the administration. “That feels different,” Zaterman says.