On August 11, 1999, HUD Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development and former mayor of East Orange, New Jersey, Cardell Cooper returned home for a few hours, joining U.S. Representative Donald Payne (D-NJ), Orange Mayor Mims Hackett, and New Jersey Citizen Action (NJCA) for press conference at St. Matthew’s A.M.E. church. He was there to announce a $42,225 HUD housing counseling grant to NJCA, the second largest housing counseling grant HUD gave in New Jersey this year.
This interview was conducted following the presentation.
What are some of your department’s key initiatives or directions that you’re really excited about?
This is the 25th anniversary of the Community Development Block Grant program. It is the most flexible program in the HUD portfolio. Local government and not-for-profit, community-based organizations [use it to] provide a variety of methods to improve communities – daycare, childcare, parks, playgrounds, helping with housing construction, you name it. Both Democrats and Republicans, by the way, came together to create this solid program.
I’m excited about CDBG, but I’m equally concerned that we make sure that the appropriations for it not only stay at the levels they are, but increase because there are more Americans who are in need.
The Dow Jones average and homeownership rates are up higher than they’ve been in a long time. Unemployment is down. The President and Vice President deserve credit. But we still have a lot of Americans who are not benefiting, and the time to get them in the flow of the economy is now, under the best conditions. We can build more affordable housing, create more rental housing units, make sure that the homeless population is not going up but going down, and create jobs and bring business to the inner city and rural areas which have been forgotten about.
Given that a good part of the surplus is attributed to the 1997 budget caps forcing cuts in departments like HUD, how do you think the current appropriations process will play out?
Having been a mayor, I try not to make predictions about what bodies will do over appropriations except to say what we need to do… the caps are a reality, the surplus is a reality, and making sure spending [that] benefits Americans and improves the quality of life is left intact is important.
HUD, through the federal budget, announced economic development initiative grants recently. These grants are used by communities to bring in business and create jobs. If you were to eliminate them because of the budget caps what you have effectively done is stop job development in inner cities and poor rural areas.
So that fight will continue to play itself out, but as an official in HUD I can tell you that while we’ve built great relationships with community groups and private industry, the uncertainty of knowing whether or not we’re going to be able to continue those [economic development programs] can break up those partnerships. Not by design but simply out of frustration.
The Con Plan, EZ/EC and other HUD programs demand community participation. How does HUD work to ensure that participation?
We have to demystify what we do. I can go into a community and give people a ton of regulations and say ‘somewhere in this package you’ll find something that might help you.’ Or we can do it the intelligent way, and that is to have people working in the communities say ‘Here is HUD’s portfolio. This is what we do in public housing, for example. This is how you access the public housing tools. Here’s HUD’s program in economic development, this is how you access this program.’
The Community Builders Program was designed to be HUD’s front door. They bring together municipalities and community organizations to open up HUD’s tool box.
In the best Consolidated Plan, community groups shall not only be consulted, they should be involved in that planning process. The Consolidated Plan is a great tool, but if [community residents] do not know that they can engage themselves in the Con Plan, then how do you do it?
And at the same time, while we’re opening the front door and re-introducing HUD in a user-friendly way, we’re also saying that we have a public trust responsibility. It is the public coffers, after all, that are funding our programs. So HUD can [fulfill] its public trust obligation by making sure that people are living within the spirit of the law and doing the right thing with those dollars.
I think we’re making a significant change in the way we do our business. The community builders and public trust officers working together at HUD are making a big difference. That doesn’t mean it’s working everywhere perfectly, but clearly we’re no longer locked into those big federal buildings and closed off from the world and only come to visit when we think there’s something wrong.
We’ve used mobile, friendly, HUD-next-door kiosks located in the hearts of communities. I went to Flint Michigan just recently and in the lobby of city hall there was a HUD kiosk. Any citizen can go there and pull up any data and program information, even if you’re not a computer expert.
We’ve now created HUD “storefront operations.” In DC for example, the actual HUD office is not the federal building that we’re in. It is a storefront, all glass operation located on a street corner. It’s just like walking off the street into any other service organization. And that’s going on around the country.
How did HUD turn around its poor image, especially with Congress?
This started under Secretary Cisneros. He knew that the HUD world that he entered when he came in as Secretary was in trouble. There was talk of abolishing the agency. Maybe some believed that the Congress meant they were going to abolish HUD and just take the HUD money and put it in some other federal department. But having been a mayor, and I think Henry knew as a [former] mayor [of San Antonio], if the city council abolished something, it generally means that they’re not funding it also. It’s not that it’s transferred somewhere, it means it’s gone. And he knew the importance of this agency to people, so he started to embark upon a restructuring.
Secretary Cuomo, who had served as the assistant secretary in the position that I’m now in, knew we needed to put together a complete management reform plan to take it to the next level. For a while HUD was viewed as [a department rife with] fraud, waste, and abuse, and now the agency’s moving toward delivering service, delivering it better and smarter, using its money and resources wisely, and partnering with communities.
Is it perfect? No. But it has changed a lot.
Will HUD ever go back into housing production at the level it used to?
There’s a crisis in housing. HUD has not been producing housing for a long time. A lot of people didn’t know that. The Secretary said, “yes there’s room for us, but there’s room for us and many others.”
We have a partnership with the National Association of Home Builders. The Vice President talks about the goal of 1 million new homes – and all of us are working towards that. I can tell you that we’re doing low-and moderate-income housing. We recently did a groundbreaking for a HOPE VI project in an inner city neighborhood. It’s a new concept of public housing. We’re looking at the HOME program, still moving along and producing housing in the country.
But we’re not and we have not been producing the amount of units that we once were. I believe that we have made an incredible argument that we can do it and we ought to be out there building. That’s part of our message about the budget; we need the financial commitment [from Congress] to do it. The will to do it is great, not having the capital to do it is a whole other thing.
How do you see the changing role of the nonprofit community and its relationship with HUD?
The not-for-profits are very important partners and customers of HUD. HUD is not just a federal government agency that interacts with local government, we interact with communities and the not-for-profit world. We’ve done that with our homeless Continuum of Care programs, and the Consolidated Plan speaks to it because we have involved so many community groups. We’ve found that nonprofits bring a wealth of knowledge and energy. We saw that recently at our Best Practices Awards in Kansas City. We had over 3000 nominees who’d done great things all over this country.
Nonprofits have been strong partners with HUD over the years. I think that partnership has strengthened. I do public interest group meetings on a quarterly basis in my role as assistant secretary. The Secretary holds meetings in Washington where we have both national representatives of not-for-profits and local folks coming in, so they let us know what’s on their agenda.
The faith-based community has also become a very integral partner with HUD. We have a faith-based office that’s working with institutions around the country – not that we don’t recognize the whole issue of the separation of church and state. What we’re talking about is, again, people having access to the federal toolbox which, after all, is financed by local people paying taxes. As a former mayor, I know first hand the range of things faith-based groups accomplish in housing, education, and after-school programs, for example. They have tremendous success. So it made good sense to have that partnership.
As nonprofits become more productive, will that take some of the responsibility for providing services off of the government?
No. Not-for-profits are doing some great things right now, and have done great things under adverse conditions. On many occasions, they have found themselves competing against each other from a limited pool of resources. And with those limited resources came the 1980s notion that government is bad and too big… that we need to downsize it. So the nonprofit world got smarter. They’re not all trying to do the same thing. People are developing joint programs, so that two entities in the same neighborhood are not fighting each other.
It should not send a message of retrenchment to the government. What the message should be is: If we have successful not-for-profits who are working very hard to deliver a quality product and may be financially better off than they were in the 80s, it does not mean that they are so well off that they don’t need government intervention and support. We haven’t recovered all the things we lost in the 80s.
What I’ve found is that [nonprofits] say, “We were able to do that [because we had] a CDBG grant or a HOME grant or a housing counseling grant.” So there’s a natural connection… [you] get a quality product because the not-for-profit is using federal dollars wisely to perform its mission.
[Nonprofits] are touching low-income and moderate-income people – and no-income people, something we don’t talk too much about. The poor are eliminated from the dialogue – what we have done is artificially assume we’ve solved the problem. I think the President’s tour [of some of America’s poorest communities] is timely. I’m glad to see that he did that, to say all is not perfect in America. There are poor – he didn’t say there are low-income people – he said there are poor people in the Mississippi Delta, there are poor people in Appalachia, there are poor people on Native American reservations in this country. We have to do something about that.
What’s the best thing to do? The Clinton administration created an environment with an economy that’s growing. Now let’s use this money to help people we wouldn’t have been able to help 6 or 7 years ago. Some people say he should have said that from day one. From day one Bill Clinton knew there were poor people in this country. So did the people who were voting to cut budgets and cut budgets and cut budgets. What he said is, “I’m going to show you we can have a growing economy and get people working and what we need to do then is use this great surplus to help those who have not benefited. They are America’s poor.”
I think we are at a critical moment in our history. At this time we should institutionalize the work done by the two Clinton/Gore administrations, and while this window of opportunity is here, do the best by those who have the least in this country.
Does being a former mayor help or hurt you at HUD?
It helped. There is no closer servant of the people than local people in local office and there is no other place in government where you have the least resources at your disposal.
I know how people live. I came from a family of 11. My mother raised her kids on welfare, not because she wanted to but because she had to. I know what it’s like to see people on a waiting list for public housing who can’t find a place to stay. I know what it’s like to be told there’s too many kids in your family to be in public housing. I know what it’s like to want to solve a problem of crime and drugs in a community. I know what it’s like to try to figure out how to maintain middle class tax-payers who want to stay in the city, so we can pay the bills. I know all those frustrations. And I know there is no magic wand to solve them.
So having been at the local level I realized when I went to Washington that we do not need to complicate the relationship. It is very clear to me that Washington’s role is to give people access to what is rightfully theirs. When you get to Washington, DC, you learn that it takes the same amount of energy to take the boulder out of the road as it does to put the boulder in the road. My job is to help take the boulder out of the road.
I think having been a mayor I recognize that with all the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into it, the greatest reward of it all is to help somebody. I felt that way as mayor, and I carry that every day at HUD.