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The Department of Housing and Urban Development was often overlooked by the previous administration, but no longer, it seems. The stimulus bill, the budget bill and a newly passed housing rescue plan are all pumping billions of dollars into HUD. Led by an energetic young secretary, the agency seems ready to play a key role on a wide variety of housing-related issues.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: At his confirmation hearing in January, what Shaun Donovan was told about the agency he was in line to run might have made some nominees run away. HUD was adrift, mismanaged and ridden by scandal, said one senator. If the government were a family at Thanksgiving dinner, HUD would be sitting at the kids' table, said another. In his unadorned office at HUD's Washington headquarters, Secretary Donovan says he's working on that.
Secretary SHAUN DON0VAN (U.S. Housing and Urban Development): One of my jobs, very clearly, is to take a place at the grown-up table, I think, for HUD.
NAYLOR: Donovan says his agency has to prove that HUD can deliver what it promises. Nowhere is that more important than with the $75 billion Housing Rescue Plan, which aims to stem the tide of foreclosures that has helped lead to a worldwide financial meltdown. Donovan says it's too early to tell if the plan is working, the details were just released last week. But there are some encouraging signs.
Sec. DONOVAN: We've had a huge increase in the number of calls to national hotlines, to counselors. We're getting information out as quickly as we can to those organizations to make sure they have real facts about the program.
NAYLOR: Donovan says there's additional money in the stimulus and budget bills to help communities pockmarked by boarded up houses and people who've lost their homes.
Sec. DONOVAN: Those efforts will help to buy up these homes, renovate them, do rent-to-own. In some cases, it may make sense to do demolition if these homes are in really terrible condition.
NAYLOR: With all the problems facing homeowners, housing advocates worry HUD will overlook one of its primary responsibilities, assuring that low income people, most of them renters, have access to housing. Sheila Crowley is president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and is a fan of Donovan's. She points out that before he came to HUD, Donovan was New York City's housing commissioner.
Ms. SHEILA CROWLEY (President, National Low Income Housing Coalition): He comes in as somebody who, at his core, is a low income housing advocate. He understands that issue. He knows what needs to be done. And our hope is that he will have the time and the resources to be able to attend to that because the mortgage crisis is all-consuming right now.
NAYLOR: Donovan vows he will not overlook HUD's traditional constituency.
Sec. DONOVAN: In terms of my own work, historically, I understand that home ownership is not an entire national housing policy. Rental housing has a critical role to play, as does what I think has really been a neglected part of HUD's mission. Remember, there's not just housing in the title of this agency, but urban development, and we need to put the UD back in HUD.
NAYLOR: The 42-year-old Donovan, who worked at HUD during the Clinton administration, acknowledges the department he now leads has had morale problems. It also has one of the oldest workforces in the federal government. But he says there is a new enthusiasm with the election of President Obama. And for his part, Donovan enjoys working with other cabinet secretaries on cross-agency solutions to problems.
Sec. DONOVAN: To make sure that at the same time that we're fixing rental housing, we're fixing schools, we're making sure that even if somebody has an affordable place to live they're not commuting two hours to work.
NAYLOR: Donovan says creating such sustainable communities is a key part of HUD's mission. And while the agency is engaged in solving the foreclosure crisis, he vows it's not going to forget its long-term goals.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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