President Joe Biden’s choice to run the Housing and Urban Development Department can expect sharp questioning on her priorities at her confirmation hearing Thursday, but plenty of support from her fellow Democrats.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, lobbied Biden hard to be his Agriculture secretary, leading some Republicans to question her commitment to the job actually now before her. She is scheduled to appear at 10 a.m. before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
“The housing needs of Americans are too great to appoint someone who is accepting this position as a consolation prize,” House Financial Services ranking member Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., said in a news release. “We have a dozen Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee who would have the credibility and expertise for this position. While I disagree with the policies they’d push, I’d at least have confidence in them to do the job. The same cannot be said about Congresswoman Fudge.”
If confirmed, Fudge would have to handle some of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left 1.8 million American homeowners behind on their mortgages, according to data analytics firm Black Knight. Democrats may try to push through large expansions of HUD's public housing programs, which she would need to help sell in Congress and implement if enacted. And she'll be expected to reverse many rules implemented by her predecessor, Secretary Ben Carson.
Compared to some other department heads, the HUD secretary has relatively little discretion to set policies without congressional action, leading some to complain that nominating Fudge, who is Black, smacks of tokenism. Despite this, Democrats have hailed Fudge’s nomination.
“At a time when millions of people are one crisis away from losing their homes or being evicted, it is clear that Representative Fudge is the right person for the job,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking panel, said in a release. “Representative Fudge will work hand-in-hand with communities to address racism in our housing system and build resilient and equitable communities.”
A spokesman for his Republican counterpart, Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., said he might ask Fudge to commit to a " transparent and full notice-and-comment rulemakings — particularly as it relates to President Biden’s recent executive action on housing and ‘racial equity.’"
"He may also ask her how she intends to protect taxpayers and homebuyers by, for instance, appropriately pricing FHA insurance and only insuring loans to creditworthy borrowers," said Toomey press secretary Bill Jaffee.
Fudge has not sat on any of the committees with jurisdiction over HUD. She does, however, have firsthand knowledge of how some of HUD’s programs work at the local level, thanks to a stint as mayor of a Cleveland suburb before being elected to Congress in a 2008 special election.
Progressive housing groups have also largely applauded Fudge’s appointment to take charge of the department's $50 billion budget.
“Congresswoman Fudge is a longtime champion of affordable housing, urban revitalization, and infrastructure investment,” said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. “Her many years of work on economic justice issues such as food insecurity and education access can bring much-needed leadership to aligning systems and services to better meet the needs of low-income Americans.”
Fair housing priority
Enforcement of fair housing rules would likely be a top priority for Fudge, a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. In the half century since passage of a law known as the Fair Housing Act, the homeownership gap between Black and white Americans remains large. According to the Census Bureau, just 46 percent of Black households owned homes in the third quarter of 2020, compared to 76 percent of white families.
Biden’s pleas for political comity and unity may improve the odds of some bipartisan housing proposals getting serious consideration. Emily Hamilton, director of the Urbanity project at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, expects Fudge will get asked about some of them, particularly bills that would encourage cities to remove zoning restrictions and other barriers to affordable housing.
“The Biden [campaign] plan endorsed the Booker-Clyburn bill, which would use Community Development Block Grants and Surface Transportation Block Grants as incentive for localities to reform their zoning ordinances and there have been other Democrats and other Republicans in the House and Senate that have signed on to several different bills with that same intention,” Hamilton said, referring to Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.
Hamilton also expects Fudge to face questions on whether she supports, and how she’d oversee the enactment of, some of Biden’s most ambitious legislative proposals, like turning federal housing assistance into an entitlement program, akin to Medicaid.
“She will get a lot of questions about her views on expanding Section 8 housing choice vouchers to be an income-based entitlement, increasing allocations to the Housing Trust Fund, and other HUD programs that the Biden administration has said it wants to see expanded but would require congressional action first,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton argued that the bipartisan proposals go hand in hand with the more progressive policy goals.
“If zoning isn’t reformed to actually allow housing to be built, then vouchers can help the lowest income residents with housing affordability but can’t make more houses available in the places where people want to live if zoning is a barrier,” she said, adding that many public housing developments are blocked by local zoning rules requiring single unit houses with large yards.
Fudge can also expect questions on how she’ll implement some of the executive orders and presidential memoranda Biden has already issued, including one extending a pandemic-related eviction and foreclosure moratorium to the end of March.
Biden signed a memo Tuesday directing HUD to reexamine some regulatory changes made by the Trump administration. If confirmed, Fudge would likely reinstate versions of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and the disparate impact standard, which were promulgated under President Barack Obama.
While civil rights advocates decried the Trump administration’s weakening of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, many housing experts — both conservatives and liberals — said the rule had little impact on local policies. The Obama-administration AFFH required HUD-grantees to develop — but not necessarily implement — plans to address barriers to integration.
Fudge may be asked how she’d not just reinstate the rule, but improve upon it.
The AFFH rule emerged from obscurity during the 2020 election, when Trump claimed he was saving the suburbs from an influx of low-income housing by revoking it. One of the primary hopes of the AFFH was to encourage municipalities to loosen their land use restrictions to allow more affordable housing.
Until Trump’s attacks on the AFFH, conservatives had largely blamed local zoning rules for the lack of affordable housing in the U.S., saying it artificially restricted supply and added costs to development, particularly in rapidly growing parts of the country. Hamilton said she would keep an eye out Thursday to see if any Republican senators would continue Trump’s lines about the suburbs.
“It will be interesting to see if any members get into the politics of zoning where the Trump campaign picked up,” she said.
Such a move would bode ill for the hopes of using the carrot of CDBG money to encourage cities to remove zoning rules — a goal that many urban liberals share, but some suburban Democrats may oppose.