HUD Secretary Takes Hot Seat on Agency Issues

Though Congress members did not point to reverse mortgage issues specifically, they cited a litany of issues at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), via questions posed to still-new Secretary Julian Castro on Thursday.

“How do you define success at HUD?” “Where can greater efficiencies be realized at the agency?” “Are there abuses in the system?” These are just a few of the questions lobbed at Castro during Thursday’s three-hour-long hearing, titled “The Future of Housing in America: Oversight of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.”

And while 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of HUD’s creation in 1965, it’s clear that many in Congress still think the department has a long way to go. For many Republican members of the Committee on Financial Services, which held the hearing, this was especially true. 

Tempers flared during the hearing, as both sides of the aisle criticized the other’s point of view, while many of the right-winged Congress members  questioned the success of HUD and its programs. 

Of particular interest was the issue of veteran homelessness and its 33% reduction since 2010, which Castro cited as one of HUD’s greatest success stories.

“What does the agency do best?” asked Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.).

“It’s fair to say many of us are proudest of our progress on [reducing veteran homelessness],” Castro said. 

Additionally, the members of Congress scrutinized the fiscal 2016 budget proposal — under which HUD would receive a nearly 9% budget increase — citing a need for greater department efficiencies and questioning HUD’s effectiveness. 

“The Congressional Research Service reports that HUD has spent, since 1965, approximately $1.65 trillion on its programs over the course of 50 years,” said Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.). “And yet, since 1965, the percentage of prime age male workers in the workforce has gone from over 90% to 77% today; the official poverty rate has remained essentially flat; and … the number of single-parent families in poverty has more than tripled. How do you define success in the mission of the Department of Housing & Urban Development?”

While Castro said he defines success in several ways, he conceded, “First of all, someone — a homeless veteran [for example] — having a roof over their head is success.” 

However, Barr argued that success should not be defined by HUD putting roofs over Americans’ heads, but rather by putting Americans in a position in which they can put a roof over their own heads. 

“The greatest housing program in America remains a good career path and a good economy, not a HUD program,” said Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a vocal critic of other government agencies, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). 

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who has recently called for more relief for reverse mortgage non-borrowing spouses, was more supportive of the agency’s progress and its existence.

“Today, we gather to discuss the future of housing in America, but frankly, if left to my Republican colleagues, that future remains bleak,” she said. “It is essential to ensure that families have a stable roof over their heads. … Our nation is facing a significant affordable rental housing shortage. Although private capital has an important role to play on this front, it cannot be leveraged without federal [assistance]. It is absolutely critical that we fully fund and expand the housing assistance programs at HUD.”

Ultimately, a common theme among Republicans’ criticisms was government accountability and transparency. 

“The pushback that you’ve sensed from this side of the aisle is a recognition that there is a concern for some abuse,” said Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.). “You’ve made a clear, compelling statement of a great American success story in addressing the needs of veterans and their homelessness. What we’re looking for is that great American success story in creating accountability in the system — to make sure that only those who need assistance are getting it.”

And for Castro, it’s this transparency that has been a key focus of his since becoming HUD secretary in July 2014. 

“Early on in my tenure we set out a vision for HUD,” Castro said. “One important part of that vision was to create a more accountable and transparent department.”

Written by Emily Study

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