Interview: Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity John Trasviña

The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity is dealing with an evolving set of discrimination challenges facing families, changes in the very definition of "family," and the political realities of the 112th Congress. Trasviña is no stranger to this balancing act.

So that moves us into some talk about HUD’s programs itself. People have been talking about, and eagerly anticipating the regulation on affirmatively furthering fair housing. What can you tell us about how that’s coming along, what details there are that can be shared, and what it will mean for HUD’s various divisions and others in the field to have that regulation out?

Back in the ’90s there was an effort to strengthen HUD’s hand on affirmatively furthering fair housing. It was unsuccessful and people today recognize the current program is not effective. So we’ve gone back and looked at what our goal is and how we can get there. In July 2009, we had over 600 members of civil rights organizations and representatives of local jurisdictions, the real estate industry, and others meet with us to express their thoughts on how we could develop a meaningful plan. Since then, we’ve gone back and talked to other stakeholders, been open to ideas, and refined them. I’m very optimistic that we will be able to have in the federal register a proposed rule that will articulate more clearly than today what we expect of jurisdictions in their obligation to affirmatively further fair housing, how we can help them, and [how we can] give them the data so they spend a minimum amount of time gathering statistical information and devote their attention to hearing from members of their community about what is needed.

In Marin County, California, we reached a voluntary compliance agreement with the county that makes clear what we expect. Marin County is the least diverse and has the highest levels of income of all of the Bay Area’s nine counties. Its black community is in the same place it was since World War II, when people working in the shipbuilding industry moved there. African Americans are still in that very small part of that county and nowhere else. Latinos have moved into the Canal area of Marin County and have not yet moved out to other parts of the county.

And right across the Golden Gate Bridge you have the nation’s oldest and largest Asian-American community. Many have the wealth, but they are not in Marin County. We looked into these and other aspects of affirmatively furthering fair housing and reached a voluntary compliance agreement with the county. One county housing official told the local newspaper that it was the first time HUD had this level of concern about outreach, minority participation, and who benefits from the program.

So that’s what we’re about on affirmatively furthering fair housing, to make sure that the people have a voice in their communities. It’s not going to be HUD in Washington telling a city or a county how they’re going to spend their money, down to the penny, down to the project, but it’s going to be HUD providing data, HUD providing expectations, HUD providing technical assistance, HUD providing the kind of cooperative effort back and forth rather than a “gotcha” list of, “You didn’t do these eight things; you’re not going to get any money.” We will be working together with the jurisdictions to really target their investments to create areas of high opportunity that will be open to all people.

The buildings that they’re building, whether they are homes, whether they are multifamily buildings or rental units or anything else, these are things that are going to last for the next 30 or 40 years, or longer. And we need communities to be thinking about what their communities can look like over that period of time and build for those eventualities. That’s what we are trying to accomplish in affirmatively furthering fair housing, to do so in a way that makes sense, that meets our capabilities, to be able to be of assistance to jurisdictions, and to, very importantly, provide a voice for people with disabilities in a community, provide a voice for minorities in the community and [for] those who are not yet in the community but would be there if there was truly open housing.

The processes of working out something this comprehensive in a bureaucracy is very difficult, or at least time consuming. Are there specific challenges or points of contention that you’re trying to work out? It sounds like you’re doing a bit of balancing between wanting to make sure that it’s not prescriptive but, as you said, giving community a voice. What are some of the tensions that are being worked through in the process of developing the regulation?

We’re working very deliberatively on issues such as data, community participation, and standards by which we will determine success. And because it is making sure that HUD’s work follows the civil rights laws and furthers them, it involves coordination within HUD headquarters and also across governmental institutions. We have 10 regions and 43 offices around the country. But we are not everywhere, so we are going to need the help of people in the communities to really know what it means to have a development sited in one place or the other.

In the last administration, we did not see the active pursuit of fair housing or really civil rights cases in general. And now, with the current administration, that’s really stepped back up, and many people were very glad to see that. But is there any way to institutionalize that more active look at fair housing and civil rights so that it doesn’t disappear again as political administrations change?

You’re always going to see changes in priorities and policies; that’s the nature of the changes in the executive branch. The affirmatively furthering regulation, as well as the Section 3 changes, are designed to provide some continuity once we establish exactly where we want to go in these areas.

As we look at what a new affirmatively furthering fair housing structure will look like, we’re going to make sure it’s not designed to be a tug-of-war between the federal government that’s writing the check and the local government that’s receiving the money. So I would hope that, future administrations that come in in the next six years or so, that they would be looking at this as a success, as a way of advancing opportunity and not looking to cut it back.

Affirmatively furthering fair housing is not just a function for HUD. It’s all the departments of government. Does HUD have conversations around this issue with Treasury, FDIC, or others?

We talk and collaborate where we can. Often times we deal with different aspects of the problem, but a lot of us review the same data so that we can help other institutions identify possible fair housing concerns.

The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will help tremendously to be able to assist us as they look at practices and policies of lenders. We have a very strong collaboration right now with the Department of Justice, not only on our more traditional Title VIII cases, but also in the broad areas of equal credit and fair lending.

1 COMMENT

  1. We are looking for information on the 12 HUD funded section 3 regional coordinators.This group was funded at the tune of six-hundred thousand to coordinate all section 3 covered recipients/developer that receive LIHTC/HOME assist.

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