Interview #100 Jul/Aug 1998

Andrew Cuomo

Perhaps the most well-known secretary since HUD's inception, Secretary Cuomo has made much of his efforts to rebuild HUD and restore Congressional and public faith in the department. A year into Cuomo's term, Congress and the media are slowly beginning to show signs of acknowledging that housing and urban development issues are worth at least a small degree of attention.

As secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo is the public face of the federal government’s housing and community development policies and programs. Perhaps the most well-known secretary since HUD’s inception, Secretary Cuomo has made much of his efforts to rebuild HUD and restore Congressional and public faith in the department. A year into Cuomo’s term, Congress and the media are slowly beginning to show signs of acknowledging that housing and urban development issues are worth at least a small degree of attention.

Prior to becoming HUD Secretary, Cuomo served as HUD’s assistant secretary for community planning and development from 1993 until 1997. Before joining HUD, Cuomo founded Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP), which has since grown into the nation’s largest provider of transitional housing for the homeless. He also chaired NYC Mayor David Dinkins’ Commission on the Homeless, served as Manhattan assistant district attorney, managed his father, Mario Cuomo’s, first campaign for governor of New York, and subsequently served as special assistant to Governor Cuomo.

Shelterforce editors Karen Ceraso and Winton Pitcoff conducted this interview with Secretary Cuomo in June 1998. Responses to follow-up questions were provided by Cuomo’s staff and are reprinted at the end of the interview.

SF: Two years ago members of Congress talked of eliminating HUD. Recently that talk has all but disappeared. The proposed FY99 budget for HUD reflects an increase, and Congress has indicated a willingness to fully fund Section 8 multi-family housing contracts. What accounts for Congress’ change in mood toward HUD, and is this a trend?

AC: I hope it’s a trend, and I believe it’s a trend, and I think what you’re starting to see is Congress’ recognition of the department’s improvement. HUD, no doubt, has had a troubled past. What we’ve been trying to communicate is: we understand that, we’ve changed the department fundamentally, and we’re a much different HUD than the HUD of the 80s or the early 90s [A]t one point the perception will follow the reality. So, our first year was spent changing the reality, improving HUD – new management systems, reorganization, and new technology. We’re not yet bumping up against the standard of management perfection, but the department is much better managed. That is the reality, and I think the perception is now following the reality, and I think Congress is reflecting that.

SF: Although HUD has been aggressively downsizing and streamlining, at the same time you’ve been attempting to increase oversight and accountability of programs. How are you meeting those challenges?

AC: The expression is “doing more with less,” and I think it’s true. You can do more with less. That was the challenge that the American corporation went through 15 years ago, and that government needs to go through now. Technology, a different corporate culture, [and] different management scenarios allow for more efficiency and more effectiveness. You know, this department had not had a management overhaul since its inception in the 60s. So there was a lot if improvement to make, and we did. Again, we’re not finished yet.

SF: But how are you able to increase oversight capacity? For example, project-based Section 8 tenants often report problems with buildings and sometimes have trouble getting a response from HUD.

AC: What we did was we basically centralized all the real estate assessment and real estate enforcement functions, in something called an Assessment Center and an Enforcement Center, because we’re not that creative with names here. And those two [centers] will do all program assessment and program enforcement, rather than every program office having to do its own. That gave us a tremendous economy of scale, and we also brought in new talent and new systems which do just that, assessment and enforcement, and it’s working.

SF: Even though Congress is expressing a bit of a change of heart when it comes to HUD, there’s still a substantial gap between housing needs and federal spending, and that came out particularly in Rental Housing Assistance – The Crisis Continues: The 1997 Report to Congress on Worst Case Housing Needs last month. Do you anticipate that gap closing, and what strategies are you pursuing without the funding you need?

AC: We have to remove the excuse for not providing the funding. The excuse that has been used is HUD’s inefficiency. Congress has never been able to say, or will never be able to say, “We refuse to meet this desperate need.” They don’t say that. They don’t say, “I understand what a worst case housing need is, and I understand that there are 5.3 million people, and I understand that there are 600,000 people on the streets; we refuse to help them.” They don’t say that. They say, “We would love to help them, but we can’t because HUD is corrupt and inefficient.” And then people say, “Yeah, that’s right, HUD is corrupt and inefficient.” Strip away that excuse. Improve HUD. Make HUD work. We did that. Now you go back to the same Congress and say, “OK, we heard you. HUD is now better, not perfect, but better. And better to the point that it is no longer a justification for not funding the programs. Now what do you want to do, United States Congress?” [Congress will] start funding. And I think that’s where we are this year. “Well, you [Congress] started, and it was a good start, we appreciate the start. But it’s not enough, we must do more. We must now come up to scale with these solutions.” I think that’s the next step, which we’ll see beginning next year.

SF: And how do you anticipate pushing Congress to go along with that program?

AC: Make the case. I make the case as HUD Secretary. The local governments make the case. Community activists make the case. Not-for-profits make the case. Tell the story of the need and the success. The housing in this nation is a tremendous success story. The infrastructure that we have, the capacity that we have, the innovation of design, the partnerships that we put together. When you put people through the 80s the way you did when there was no funding for housing, you force them to become very creative. When you’re only getting the crumbs from the table, you become very creative. And we did, and there’s all sorts of financial leveraging scenarios and innovative partnerships that have been forged. If you now provide the kind of funding that we actually need, we can do great things.

SF: Have housing advocates, CDCs, faith-based groups, and other nonprofit organizations had a significant effect on HUD, and federal housing policy overall?

AC: Yes, but not the effect they deserve. They can do more and they should do more. I come out of the not-for-profit community, and I am a very big believer in the capacity of community-based organizations. I think we do a lot with them – homeless programs, the HOME program – but we haven’t explored their full capacity.

SF: What’s been the most successful work these groups have done?

AC: They’ve had success in actual service delivery, housing construction, and advocacy. I think what they’re going to need to do more of in the future is advocacy. It gets back to the point we just discussed. The next step will be: we stripped away the excuse that HUD was inefficient, we’ve demonstrated the need – 5.3 million people, or just take a walk down the street and see who lives on a park bench – we’ve demonstrated the capacity – we can show you the best housing programs in the world – now, we have to advocate for the funds necessary to come up to scale.

SF: The trend of devolution has put more pressure on these nonprofit community development groups to take on a larger share of community development work, but not necessarily with a significant amount of extra funding, and many of these groups already struggle with inadequate funding and staff. Are you expecting too much from them?

AC: No. That’s why they have to advocate for more resources. That’s their case. The case has to be: you devolved this responsibility, you want us to do more, you have to provide the resources. We’re not magicians. We can’t create something with nothing. Provide the resources. Devolution should not mean transference of responsibility without capacity, without resources.

SF: The need to come up with resources is something that’s also affecting PHAs, subsidized housing owners, and CDCs, as they’re starting to try to attract more moderate-income people to their units. There’s general acceptance that concentrating the poor is self-defeating, but there are also concerns about shifting limited resources away from the people who most need assistance. How do you resolve that?

AC: Devolution cannot become passing the responsibility without the resources. It can’t become passing the buck without the bucks, right? And a manifestation of that squeeze is housing authorities, CDCs, who are pressured to bring in higher income people who can then pay more rent, require less subsidy, which has the resulting effect of leaving people with actually fewer resources still waiting for housing. That’s unacceptable in my opinion.

SF: So you would not support the income targeting changes in the public housing bill?

AC: No. I do not support a change that says the problem with public housing is there are too many poor people in public housing, and therefore that the solution is to bring higher income people into public housing and leave the poor people on the streets. That to me is not a good solution.

SF: On the topic of public housing: we’ve been reading a lot about Gautreaux and Moving to Opportunity. They’ve been successful in that they’ve worked at deconcentrating the poor from the public housing, and providing the support that very poor families need to bring themselves out of poverty, but they’re also incredibly politically unpopular, and there’s clearly some fear and some racism behind the opposition to these strategies. How are you going to overcome that, or are these programs that you’re looking to abandon at some point?

AC: No. The approach is right. Mobility, integration is right. It’s also the law. It’s also the Constitution. It’s also human decency and community. You have to separate the myth from the reality. You must address the fear, you can’t ignore it, and you can’t run roughshod over it. And the way you defuse the fear is with the facts. These programs work very well. There will not be a mass intrusion of despicable characters moving into your neighborhood; that is an unfounded fear, that is just not correct. These are basic principles to this nation. I think it’s an education process, it’s a learning process; it’s discussion and bringing down the temperature and injecting reason.

SF: Have you seen that starting to happen?

AC: Yes. I’ve gone through this myself with siting of low-income housing in middle-class communities. I’ve spent hours and hours in zoning hearings and community board hearings, with outraged neighbors. I’ve heard children, six- or seven-year-old children, give testimony, crying about how afraid they were that these poor people would be moving into their neighborhood and how the poor people would threaten and harm the existing residents. Where did this child get the impression? What has that child heard in the house?

The concept is right; it takes time, it takes discussion, and if you don’t take the time, you then come to loggerheads right away. And the situation can get ugly. And that has to be avoided at all costs, because that just sets us back. And racism is unfortunately alive and well in America.

SF: How is HUD addressing the ongoing problems of redlining, discrimination, and segregation in housing? Your testing methods pinpoint and address specific problems, but how are you addressing systemic issues?

AC: Two prongs. First: education, discussion, understanding. Second: enforce the law. You have the civil rights laws. You’ve had them on the books for decades. Enforce the laws. And do it aggressively. If people discriminate, we will not tolerate it – discrimination within housing, discrimination within lending. Enforce the laws. And we’re doing that with more frequency and a more aggressive style than this department has ever done.

[Ed Note: The following answers were provided as written responses.]

SF: Community and government-based revitalization efforts have recently focused on linking a variety of issues, such as housing, child care, and transportation. How do HUD’s current strategies reflect this trend?

AC: We’re taking a holistic approach wherever we can and have been doing this for some time. The best example is the Continuum of Care for our homeless programs – not a single solution, but a range of services tied in to housing for the homeless. Other HUD efforts include Family Self-Sufficiency, a program that helps public housing residents and people who receive project-based Section 8 rental assistance to become self-sufficient through education, training, and supportive services; and Bridges to Work, a HUD demonstration that links low-income inner-city residents with suburban jobs, transportation, child care, and other supportive services.

We’re creating Regional Opportunity Counseling Centers, to help Section 8 certificate holders find housing in the suburbs close to “where the jobs are.” This year we’re asking for a substantial number of rental vouchers – with a total of 50,000 just to help welfare recipients move close to jobs in the suburbs. In this case the voucher is more than just housing assistance: it also provides a service by letting people move closer to jobs and the transportation and child care they need. We are fundamentally reorganizing the way we deal with the public so as to encourage comprehensive revitalization efforts, rather than time-consuming and fragmented processes.

SF: Has HUD altered its priorities, strategies, or goals based upon this trend, and has it meant diminished attention to housing or some of the other more “traditional” goals?

AC: Yes, we have altered our strategies, but no, we are not doing so at the cost of our traditional goals. Revitalization of the whole community has always been our mission. If you go back and look at the Department of Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, which established this organization, you’ll find a declaration that “the health and living standards of our people require, as a matter of national purpose, sound development of the Nation’s communities and metropolitan areas in which the vast majority of its people live and work” Decent affordable housing is an essential element of that mission, but the community must have many points of strength to flourish, not just housing.


HUD and CBOs:

    HUD’s attitude toward local communities has changed. We now look to local leaders as partners, rather than adversaries, in helping us reform the agency and getting it to perform better. Local nonprofit organizations play a big part in community revitalization, and the most effective strategies are bottom-up, community-based and comprehensive.

In January we announced the creation of our new Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships. Directed by Rev. Joseph R. Hacala, S.J., the goal of the Center is to work directly with those individuals involved in community development corporations, not-for-profit groups, community organizing activities, and faith-based groups. The Center will help focus, integrate, and intensify HUD’s efforts to be a more active partner in housing and economic development activities at the grassroots level.

Additionally, HUD has required advisory board participation by local nonprofits and other groups in its consolidated planning process. We have revamped the Department’s top-down budget guidelines and required communities to draw up their own comprehensive plans for spending dollars.

We are also creating a new and innovative type of HUD worker actually called Community Builder – a front line field employee who will be knowledgeable about a wide array of HUD programs and can focus exclusively on assisting communities, including nonprofits, in developing powerful housing and community development strategies.

On Welfare Reform and Rental Assistance:

    No tenant receiving HUD rental assistance will lose that eligibility due to welfare reform. Public housing authorities will not be penalized because HUD’s operating subsidies take tenant income into account. Most subsidized housing payments are based on the tenant’s income, so when a tenant’s income goes down, HUD’s share of the rent rises to compensate. Also, we expect Congress to pass conforming legislation shortly that will allow us to treat tenant income under the housing voucher program just as we do under our Section 8 program.

On Income Targeting:

    From Secretary Cuomo’s public response to an income targeting measure for public housing that was passed by the House of Representatives in July.

“It is inexcusable that we would take the few units of affordable housing this Congress has allowed to remain and remove it from the grasp of the most vulnerable Americans. This means no housing for America’s most vulnerable. In an apparent effort to ‘mix income’ in public housing the House bill would make 1.8 million seniors and children virtually homeless. For them, the House bill would be the equivalent of a housing death sentence: no housing for life.”

“The Administration’s position is an intelligent balance which would allow mixed income in public housing and provide for the most vulnerable with Section 8 vouchers for every lower-income family displaced from the waiting list.”

“The inclusion of this repugnant public housing bill in the HUD appropriations bill violates the good faith and cooperative efforts we have been working towards and is tantamount to legislative extortion.”


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