The Senate voted 66-34 Wednesday to confirm Marcia L. Fudge to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department, where the former Ohio Democratic congresswoman will face an affordable housing crisis exacerbated by a global pandemic.
"A quarter of all renters of this country spent more than half of their income on housing before the pandemic," said Senate Banking Chairman Sherrod Brown on the floor before the vote. "I can think of no one better to lead us out of the pandemic and create strong communities for the future."
"HUD today is grappling with a housing market in which millions are struggling to find a home," said Brown, D-Ohio. "The dream of ownership is increasingly out of reach for too many families… HUD should play a central role in fixing that."
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, the ranking member of Senate Banking, opposed confirmation, saying Fudge's comments over years about Republicans cast doubt on whether she is willing to work with members of Congress. Reading Fudge's comments about Republicans who are "evil and mean," Toomey, R-Pa., said their impact would be "toxic" on working relationships.
He also said Fudge doesn't have enough housing experience. "She did not show an interest in developing housing policy or experience as a member of Congress," Toomey said, adding that HUD's programs need to be better targeted to serve their purpose.
Fudge has listed her first priority as secretary as bringing people who have fallen behind on rent or mortgages during the COVID-19 pandemic back from the financial edge. The $25 billion in rental assistance Congress passed in December and the extension of an eviction moratorium to March 31 are not enough to tackle the problem, she said at her Jan. 28 confirmation hearing.
Another $20 billion in rental assistance is expected through the relief package the House cleared Wednesday. The aid and the funds provided in December will be allocated to states and localities through the Treasury Department, though HUD will consult on the process and study the impact of the financial assistance.
‘A tsunami of evictions’
Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said stopping the looming eviction crisis caused by the pandemic will be the most pressing challenge Fudge faces as secretary.
“We have a situation now where there are tens of millions of low-income people, who are struggling with rent each month and who have accrued about $57 billion in rent and utility arrears during the pandemic,” she told CQ Roll Call in an interview.
If the pause on evictions ended now, 30 to 40 million people would likely lose their homes, though as financial aid provided by Congress reaches imperiled renters and small landlords that number could decrease substantially, Yentel said.
“If we do this right…we can avoid the tsunami of evictions that is otherwise on the horizon,” she said.
Fudge faces substantial challenges, Yentel said. The secretary will take over an understaffed department, which saw departures from both political and career staff under the Trump administration, she said.
“A lot of top experts left during the Trump administration and many who stayed had very low morale,” she said. “The incoming secretary will need to pretty early on work to staff up the agency and reorient it to its mission of addressing the housing needs of the lowest income people and creating fair, stable, accessible housing for all.”
HUD lost 18.5 percent of its full-time, permanent staff from 2008 to 2017, the most of any cabinet-level department, according to a 2019 Inspector General report. During the same period the total number of federal government employees grew by 11 percent.
The Biden administration has not yet named other nominees for political openings at the department.
Yentel said she expects Fudge to reinstate fair-housing rules overturned by former HUD Secretary Ben Carson and take action to address an affordable housing crisis that predates the pandemic.
Affordable housing crisis
Even before the pandemic, 21 million people were considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend at least 30 percent of their incomes on housing, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Of that, 11 million spent at least half their pay on rent or house payments.
About 75 to 80 percent of people who qualify for housing vouchers through Section 8 don’t receive them, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Fully funding the program is part of President Biden’s promise to spend $640 billion during the next decade to expand access to affordable housing.
His plans include ending discriminatory lending practices known as redlining; providing financial assistance through tax credits for down payments and federal rental insurance; and improving the supply, quality and price of housing through investments in the resilience, energy efficiency and accessibility of homes.
“It could end homelessness and housing poverty,” Yentel said of the plan. “It is light years ahead of what any other United States president has committed to before when it comes to housing.”
“The question next becomes what are the opportunities to advance it,” she said, adding that the creation of more affordable housing could be included in future infrastructure packages.
To secure funding Biden, whose Democratic party narrowly controls Congress, would likely need support from some Republicans.
Toomey 's floor comments echoed his criticism of Fudge at the Feb. 4 committee vote for her response to his question about better targeting HUD programs to low-income people. He said Fudge said more resources were necessary, while Toomey argued the department needed reforms to function more effectively.
Fudge advanced through the Banking Committee with bipartisan support, though some GOP senators took issue with statements she had made about their party, including her questioning whether Republicans care about people of color.
She said at her confirmation hearing that she had questioned whether some, not all Republicans, care about people of color. She also said she has the “ability and capacity” to work with Republicans and intends to do so as Housing secretary.
Fudge, who previously was the first woman and first African American mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, drew support from not only Brown, but also her state's other senator, Republican Rob Portman.
Portman, who has said he will retire when his term ends next year, highlighted Fudge’s public service in a statement introducing her during the confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee. Portman is not a member of the panel.
“You do have a distinguished career and have worked on housing policy throughout your entire public policy career,” Portman said.