Secretary Donovan interacts with a young child during an Earth Day event
Photo courtesy of the National Coalition for the Homeless

A National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) Intern Tony Taylor questions former NCH intern and current Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan 

At a recent news conference, President Obama was asked to comment on the growing crisis of family homelessness. The President responded by acknowledging that the homelessness problem in this country “was bad even when the economy was good,” and cited the importance of creating quality jobs to help homeless families and individuals afford shelter. While job creation is certainly an important component of a federal response to homelessness, it is only part of the solution. What would you add to the President’s response?  

For many Americans, the previous economic prosperity was largely fueled by the artificial growth in home values. This put tremendous pressure on the rental marketplace as lower income families struggled to find a home or apartment they could afford. They experienced none of the benefits of a booming housing market and all of the negative consequences.  

President Obama and I are convinced that any recovery must be sustainable and based on real growth, not only on the jobs front, but in the housing market as well. And this absolutely must include a more concerted effort on the part of the federal government to encourage the production of more affordable rental housing.  

What steps have Congress and your administration taken thus far that will prevent more people from becoming homeless and help put people experiencing homelessness back into homes?  

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $1.5 billion in grants to rapidly re-house families who fall into homelessness or to help prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place. HUD’s new Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP) allows us to fund homeless prevention activities as never before. President Obama and the Congress recognized that too many families are experiencing a sudden economic crisis and are at extremely high risk of becoming homeless. The Recovery Act is just one way we’re hoping to offer the kind of short-and-medium-term help to put them on the path to self-sufficiency.  

For many years, low-income families and individuals in our nation have faced a severe shortage of affordable housing. How will the Department of Housing and Urban Development address this problem under your leadership?  

The prior administration lost sight of how the housing boom, as beneficial as it may have been for homeowners, placed much of our available rental housing stock well beyond the reach of many lower-income families. In particular, families living in high-cost areas continue to face a hard choice — either move to a lower cost area or live in substandard housing.  

We must take a more balanced approach to our national housing policy. This is why we are seeking to create a $1 billion Housing Trust Fund to stimulate the production of affordable housing and to increase the number of available rental vouchers. We also intend to increase funding to our long-standing CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] and HOME [HOME Investment Partnerships Program] programs that will go a long way toward investing in the affordable rental market. I believe the President’s proposed 2010 budget returns the federal government to its leadership role as a catalyst for expanding the availability of decent and affordable rental housing.  

Photo of Secretary Donovan giving a speech

Photo courtesy of the National Coalition for the Homeless

What role do you believe scattered-site public housing should play in your department’s response to homelessness?  

Housing First projects have shown that homeless persons, including chronically homeless persons, can be stably housed in scattered-site housing, with appropriate support. Of critical importance is the ability of the families and service providers to be reliably in contact.  

Placing homeless families in locations that are distant to important service providers may add a layer of complication to the provision of services. Placing homeless families in scattered-site public housing is a local decision based on the type of housing available, and the type and location of the services being provided. I encourage PHAs [Public Housing Agency] to connect with their community’s local continuum of care to secure services and to assess what the best housing option might be for homeless families.  

What is your vision for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in the coming years?  

The focus of the previous USICH was to end chronic homelessness. We learned from that experience that if we assess research and then clearly define a policy objective, target resources to meet that objective and then measure results that we can make a real difference. HUD, a member of the USICH, played a key role in this initiative. It’s now time to use that same process and see what can be done not just for the chronically homeless but for other homeless populations, including homeless families. This administration intends to have more engagement and collaboration through the USICH with Federal agencies to solve homelessness. 

While many people experiencing homelessness live in city streets or in emergency shelters, countless others spend their nights in the homes of friends and family, in campgrounds, or in low-rent motels. How will this administration plan to reach out and provide needed services to those households, as well? 

People are often forced to live with family and friends because they can’t find an affordable home to rent. This is why it is critical that we do everything we can to stimulate the production of affordable rental housing. The Recovery Act’s Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program will help thousands of families to avoid homelessness by offering moving expenses, security deposits and temporary rental assistance. HUD is making significant contributions toward the capital needs of local housing authorities so they, in turn, can serve more families. And we’re reaffirming HUD’s support for our voucher programs by proposing nearly $18 billion in the 2010 budget, an increase of $1.8 billion over current levels. It’s clear that President Obama is intent on making sure that lower income families, and specifically those at higher risk of homelessness, must not be forgotten as we seek to put this nation back on the path of sustainable economic growth.  

Portrait of Secretary Donovan

Photo courtesy of the National Coalition for the Homeless

Homelessness is not just a housing issue, of course, but an issue pertaining also to health care, incomes, civil rights, education and jobs. In what ways do you plan on coordinating your efforts at HUD with the efforts of the other departments in combating homelessness?  

To solve homelessness requires not just housing but access to an array of supports. The services by agencies such as the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education are absolutely vital to help ensure that once persons are housed they have the services they need to become stably housed and improve their lives through education and employment. Clearly the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness will be playing a key role in coordinating government agencies on the issue.  

During your years as commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, what role did you play in providing housing resources for the city’s homeless population? What lessons did you learn from that experience that will inform your work as HUD Secretary?  

In one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, we were able to make significant progress toward building and preserving 165,000 units of affordable housing, the largest municipal affordable housing plan in the nation’s history. One of my proudest achievements in New York was the New York/New York III, a $1 billion agreement between the state and the city to finance and develop 9,000 new units of supportive housing in New York City. The lessons I learned are that if you hope to develop affordable housing, you have to be nimble and you have to gather a collection of partners to help make it happen.  

How did you become involved in the issues of homelessness and low-income housing?  

As an 11-year-old, I was sitting in Yankee Stadium during Game 2 of the 1977 World Series when Howard Cosell uttered his famous words: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” The Bronx burning on the city skyline was just one of the many visible signs that government institutions and urban programs were failing. People were asking if our cities were dead, and American families moved out of urban cores to the suburbs in record numbers. It was a frightening and eye-opening time to live in New York. But it was a time that also sparked a deep interest in me, an interest in how I could play a part in changing the policies that shaped the urban landscape and built the environment around me. I remember very vividly walking on my way to school in the morning and seeing people sleeping on the streets. I remember constantly asking myself why. Why was the world like this? And what can I do to change it? I worked for a community housing developer in New York City after studying public policy and architecture in graduate school. Then one of my professors from graduate school asked me to join him at HUD in the Clinton Administration.  

Why do you believe it is important for the government to play a role in providing and attaining affordable housing in this country? Do you believe that the federal government can really make a difference in preventing and ending homelessness?  

The resources of the federal government can help as no other entity can, either through direct investment, tax credits, bond financing or a combination of these tools. But government can’t do it alone. The only reason we were so successful in New York was because we marshaled the combined resources of a number of public and private players. I also think we have to change our general approach to affordable housing and endeavor to create sustainable communities that are transit-oriented and energy efficient. That’s why HUD is working closely with the Departments of Transportation, Energy, Labor and Education to cultivate a more comprehensive and holistic approach to development. We just have to think smarter about how we build the communities of tomorrow.  

In the same way, I think the federal government can make a real difference in preventing homelessness as we work to end homelessness for those experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness. As you know, there has been a shift in how the federal government, as well as state and local communities, in how we confront chronic homelessness. All across the country, you’re seeing the creation of thousands of new permanent supportive housing units and a noticeable decrease in our reliance on emergency shelters. I anticipate that we will continue to see this paradigm shift in the years to come. 5 Shaun Donovan Tony Taylor recently graduated from American University and is now working in Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office, already following Donovan’s public service reputation.