President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package includes almost $150 billion devoted to remedying inequities left by the country’s history of discriminatory housing practices. If a bill that passes the Senate includes that amount, it would be historic.
Marcia L. Fudge, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has been sharing the message about infrastructure investments that include public housing rehabilitation and rental vouchers, and what it would all mean for American families. Fudge joined a recent episode of CQ Roll Call’s podcast Equal Time to discuss the issue further.
A transcript, edited for clarity and brevity, appears below.
Mary C. Curtis: How does $150 billion devoted to housing in this reconciliation bill fit into the administration’s larger goal of achieving equity, particularly in light of the legacy of past discrimination in housing?
Secretary Marcia Fudge: It literally is life-changing, when you consider the fact that we have never made this kind of an investment in housing in the history of this country. Think about what it will do for the average person. Today, there is no place in this country where housing is truly affordable, because we have such a lack of supply. So the first thing we’re going to do is increase supply by building more than 1 million new housing units that will immediately bring the cost of housing down and provide people more opportunities. Today, we live in a nation where the gap between Black and white home ownership is the same as it was in 1968.
We have to find ways to reinvent the housing market so that Black people and poor people and other people of color have a real opportunity to own their own home and to create wealth. So some of the things that this bill is going to allow us to do are provide down payment assistance. We know that most people can afford rent. It is not the rent that is the problem or the mortgage, it is getting into the home with the down payment assistance. So we’re going to provide hundreds of millions of down payment assistance.
We also are looking at how we approach rehabilitating communities by starting to provide more low dollar loans so that we can start to rehabilitate streets, communities, and get people who are on the lower rung of the payment scale the ability to get into houses right away.
The other thing that we are doing is providing a lot more vouchers so that people who are homeless have an opportunity. But most importantly, what we’re doing is making sure that we can provide decent public housing. We are going to increase the amount of housing that is available. We want to assist people in getting into homes and staying in them. We’re reducing interest rates. We are doing everything we know how to do to make this market fair for every American. And that’s what $150 billion will do.
Curtis: Well, you mentioned rental vouchers. And if the bill passes the Senate with the housing money intact, it looks like it has $25 billion included for the vouchers, which would be the biggest expansion of the program since the 1960s. But it’s really been members of Congress, particularly the House, that have pushed to include it in the bill. Will the administration and your department push for it to not get lost in negotiations?
Fudge: Oh, absolutely. We’re fighting for it every day. We’re talking about what amounts to about 200,000 vouchers. So yes, we are very, very supportive of it, as is the White House.
Curtis: I wanted to ask a little bit about HUD itself. Overall, the federal government’s permanent staff grew by about 11 percent from 2008 to 2017, while HUD in that time lost 18 1/2 percent of its full-time, permanent staff. And morale also dropped, we know, under the previous administration. So will there be enough money in the bill so that HUD can oversee the distribution of the money and resources?
Fudge: We have put in a request for salaries as well, not just for in HUD, but the kind of civic participation we have to have. One of the major problems we had with the emergency rental assistance is that there was not the capacity on the ground in terms of just bodies and skill set to get the resources through, so we’re looking at salaries inside and outside as well. So the president’s budget has a request for increasing salaries. Our budget has an increase, and there are resources in Build Back Better.
Curtis: Now, you hear about other departments in the Cabinet. Why does it seem that HUD traditionally has been relegated to being a second-tier agency?
Fudge: I think that there are a lot of people who just did not consider the work we did at the same level as others. But let me just say this to you. It truly is a new day. HUD is growing, we are getting stronger every day. Our staff is getting stronger every day. You’re going to hear so much from HUD because when you talk about equity, you have to talk about housing. If you can’t put a decent roof over somebody’s head, you can’t talk about equity. It’s hard to even feed people if they don’t have a home, so people know that at the center of equity are the basic necessities: a roof over your head and food in your stomach. And this administration clearly understands that.
Curtis: The previous administration said some parts of the Fair Housing Act were social engineering. I know that you’ve recommitted implementing the Fair Housing Act. How will that make a difference? And how will the BBB bill help?
Fudge: We have got about $20 million right now that we actually have available to assist communities, because we know fair housing is not social engineering … it is the law.
It is the law, and we intend to follow it. Because we know that when we don’t, what happens is that people who have always been left out, who have never been on a level playing field, continue to be left out of the process. And so we have to make sure that we can bring everybody on board to give everybody a fair shot. We are beefing up our Office of Fair Housing; we’re bringing on some of the best people you can possibly imagine. We are going to make sure that people follow the law.
Curtis: So I want to ask you — are there any other issues that our listeners should know about on what the bill would mean, when it comes to moving the needle on housing progress in this country?
Fudge: The amount of housing that we’re going to build. High-speed internet and rail, which you know was in the bipartisan infrastructure plan. Now we’re talking about eliminating lead in paint. We have Superfunds — think about climate. You know, I mean, Black people oftentimes think, yeah, the climate is not important. But who lives near Superfund sites? Who is affected by storms? Who was affected by floods in inner cities? It is us. So the climate change and resiliency, which is going to be about $50 billion, is a tremendous win for us as well. So there are lots of things. Those are just some of the biggest things I think that we need to think about. But there’s so much more.
Curtis: What would you say to folks who say, ‘Is that infrastructure?’ when you talk about child care and other pieces of the bill.
Fudge: Infrastructure is a foundation. When you build a foundation, you build it in a way that people can succeed. That means a stable place to live. That means not worrying about where the next meal comes from every day. It means good schools. It means a lot of things. But what it means in its totality is the foundation to live a better life. So yes, it is infrastructure.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, we would not have said that broadband or internet or high-speed internet was infrastructure. We wouldn’t have said it. We weren’t even thinking about the grid being infrastructure at that point. We weren’t thinking about climate change being infrastructure at that point.
We are moving into a new world, a new society that understands that how people live dictates what infrastructure is, not what people have always thought it was. We can’t live in the past. We have to live in the future.