Friday, January 9, 2009

HUD Flashback

Sometime around late 1989 or early 1990, I went with my friend Doug Michels - distinguished Architect and Futurist - to talk with one of the higher-ups at the Department of Housing and Urban Development about the future of American housing. I had arranged this meeting through my Senator with the highest ranking career guy in the department who supposedly was right under Secretary Jack Kemp in the chain of command. Kemp wasn't taking meetings about 'those kinds of issues' - at least that was the word from the Senator's staff.

Doug was one of the founders of the experimental design group Ant Farm based in San Francisco; they produced art and architecture projects throughout the US. You may be familiar with their most famous work, Cadillac Ranch - American roadside art near Amarillo, Texas celebrating the evolution of the tail fin.

We didn't really know what to expect or what would come out of the discussion, but we were interested in what HUD was doing because we had heard Kemp was there to shake things up.

As a young architect, I was very eager to be prepared, and asked Doug how much time we would need before the meeting to go over our agenda. He said "Polk, we prepare every day of our lives."

So we, or at least I, went in blindly.

When we got there, we were ushered through light security (this was well before 911) to a nondescript government office space, and very shortly, our man - a somewhat portly and very friendly guy - walked in.

"What can I do for you?"

After a few niceties, we asked "What is HUD doing to address the future of housing in this country?"

The guy seemed a bit perplexed. He said "Well, there were a few people looking into that in the late 70's, but Reagan got rid of all of them."

Then, with a sudden gleam in his eye, he perked up. Leaning forward, as if to let us in on the secret of the universe, he smiled and said "Lead Paint! We've got a big push on now for lead paint abatement." He was very self-congratulatory.

Doug and I were speechless. We both just grinned and looked back and forth at each other and the HUD guy while he went on about all they were doing in the area of lead paint abatement. We were trying not to crack up.

Very quickly, we excused ourselves. There was nothing left to talk about. We barely made it out of the building before we were howling with laughter.

Forever more, "Lead Paint Abatement" was our running punch line for any joke.

But the real joke was that HUD has for the past 3 decades (with the exception of some activity during the Clinton Administration, albeit woefully underfunded) been out of the business of shaping the future of America's housing.

Seems preposterous, doesn't it.

Well, I think the situation shifted 180 degrees on November 4th. And from all I know about Shaun Donovan, and admittedly that's not much, HUD will be taking a more proactive approach, giving direction and thought to the matter of housing design and building in America. Obama has demonstrated that he understands why planning for what we want to see manifested, rather than leaving it to chance and businessmen, is a fundamentally higher level of thinking - responsive to the human condition, not simply to the bottom line of a vinyl siding-slapping profiteer.

I may even see if I can schedule another meeting. Doug, now no longer with us, will be watching from the ether whispering "Lead Paint, Lead Paint, Lead Paint," and laughing hysterically.

This is exciting.


Anonymous said...

"HUD has for the past 3 decades (with the exception of some very notable activity during the Clinton Administration, albeit woefully underfunded) been out of the business of shaping the future of America's housing."

Really? I could have sworn HUD and HUD-Affiliates like ACORN made a significant contribution to pressuring banks and lenders to make unwise loans to people that could not afford them. They definitely helped shape Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They had people hired on to shape HUD Policy. Oh my. They studied Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with our taxpayer dollars right up until they probably realized that all their experts were wrong. Now they just hang out on Craiglist and watch for potential violations of rental ads, so they can file a complaint and "conciliate" via a "donation" to an approved HUD affiliate. Though if they "allege" a violation, you have to agree not to tell and also agree it was voluntary and not coerced.

"HUD will be taking a more proactive approach, giving direction and thought to the matter of housing design and building in America."

I hope so, because this is the most wasteful, pathetic, bullying agency in American government, and an agency that has done more damage to this country than one can imagine. If their tactics remain the same, you will see more and more individuals come forward to bring light to them. Their own HUD employees describe it as "tyrannical" and that reported management abuses go unchecked.

Will I wish for the best for Mr. Donovan, he needs to start by cleaning house and needs to be aware that all the same arguments in Congress made in the late 1990's to abolish HUD are still good arguments today.

James Polk said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.

One thing.

The sub-prime mortgage melt-down did not happen because of the Clinton Administration's HUD policy.

When I visited HUD in the late 1990's, there was a much different vibe in the office. I had conversations with professionals working on energy efficiency, next-generation homes, and affordability issues. I came away with the impression that the agency was focused on empowering the potential home-owner. In all cases, though, good intentions were not matched up with adequate funding, meaning no money for implementation of ideas. Still, home-ownership, with good solid mortgages, was way up especially in minority and traditionally under served communities.

Contrast that with the Bush administration's focus on empowering the "deal-makers." Thus, lax regulation and look-the-other-way-with-a-wink-and-a-nod politics favoring get-rich-quick profiteers was the ethic fostered. That's a very powerful philosophical difference and is at the root of why Bush's housing policy (as well as almost every other policy) has been a complete and utter disaster.

This sub-prime mortgage crises is the property of Bush and his like-minded allies exactly because of the philosophy of greed they promoted, enabled, romanticized, and supported.

Anonymous said...

Well, certainly the Bush policy, and Bush appointees, were a a disaster. Here are some of them at work.

But even Clinton's policy contributed.

"In 1995, President Bill Clinton's HUD agreed to let Fannie and Freddie get affordable-housing credit for buying subprime securities that included loans to low-income borrowers."

My point is that no matter who has been President and whatever policy they have allowed, HUD has been disastrous.

James Polk said...

Thanks Anonymous,

You have some traction there on the Clinton Administration's HUD track record. They weren't perfect; just much better than any administration since Carter.

I do believe that the agency is as vital and that its effectiveness is a direct result of its focus and level of financial support (assuming the focus is positive).

The agency is an extension of the administration's philosophy. If the philosophy is that HUD should be effective, it will be. If the philosophy is that HUD is irrelevant, it will be.

Anonymous said...

Well, with all those good HUD implied intentions said, why does what happened in 1998...:

The Growing Farce of Fair Housing

...still happen today?

Dan Bader's Experience with The Fair Housing Council of Orange County (FHCOC)

If this is the CHANGE that Obama was talking about, then wait until you say what Change is in store for all of us.

The Shakedown: HUD and Its Cronies

Yes, folks, it is 2009 and this is still happening!

James Polk said...

A vehicle maneuvered skillfully and purposefully has a fundamentally different character and utility than the very same vehicle systematically driven into the ditch. Bush appointed people who never learned, never intended to learn, and attacked or fired anyone who indicated a desire to learn how to drive the vehicle that is HUD.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope Mr. Shaun Donovan is an ethical and lawful driver of this vehicle.