Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge faced questions from both parties about how she plans to replace departed staff, a personnel gap that she said has undermined the implementation of department programs.
President Joe Biden’s budget request for the agency includes $182 million to increase personnel and recover some of the 20 percent of staff the department lost from 2012 to 2019. Fudge on Thursday appeared before the Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee to discuss the budget request.
“What I found at my entrance into the agency is an agency that had great employees. But they were overworked and were understaffed,” Fudge said. “Until we can start to build back up our staff and build back up our capacity, we are at risk of not doing some things that we should do to make sure that our mission is completed.”
Biden has requested $68.7 billion in discretionary funding for the department in fiscal 2022, a 15.1 percent increase from enacted funding for fiscal 2021.
Fudge said low capacity at the department had slowed the rollout of pandemic housing relief to local governments. Without the staff available to provide technical assistance to grantees, many local governments that received funds were reluctant to spend them, she added.
“When you have especially small communities and rural communities, they were afraid to use funds if they don't know what they're supposed to be doing, and so they hold it,” she said.
Understaffing at HUD and the Veterans Affairs Department also slowed the distribution of 24,000 rental vouchers to homeless veterans through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, she said, adding that a shortage of affordable housing had also made it difficult to house homeless veterans.
Subcommittee Chairman Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, pressed Fudge on how she plans to correct the staffing shortage.
“It's not just a matter of wanting to increase your capacity. We've got to have a strategy for it. So what should you be doing and what should we be doing to reverse the trend?” he said.
“We have to start to hire people and hire them faster,” Fudge replied, adding that she cut the 180-day onboarding time for new employees in half since taking over the department. The secretary said HUD will also consolidate job postings for positions that are similar across its divisions, rather than posting them separately.
Committee ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, said lack of funds can’t be the only reason HUD has struggled to replace lost staff, citing unspent funding allocated through the March 2020 pandemic relief bill.
“If we're giving you that kind of extra money to hire staff to implement the CARES Act, which was passed more than a year ago, and you've only spent a little over 13 percent of the money for salaries, there's a problem at HUD,” Collins said.
“There is a problem at HUD. I absolutely agree with you 100 percent,” Fudge said. “What I found when I arrived is that there didn't seem to be the kind of systems in place to make sure that these funds were spent properly and timely.”
“We are addressing it now,” Fudge added.
Regarding requested funding for housing programs, senators praised the inclusion of funding of Community Development Block Grants in Biden’s budget request. President Donald Trump proposed eliminating the popular program in each of his budget requests, a proposition Congress ignored each time.
“It is refreshing that this year the program has not been eliminated, knowing that we would restore the funding, but forcing us to search for the funds,” Collins said.
Biden proposed increasing funding for the program by $295 million, to $3.8 billion, for fiscal 2022.
“It is a critical program that provides flexible funding for water and sewer improvements, public services for seniors, revitalization of distressed downtowns, and countless other worthwhile projects that serve low- and moderate-income communities,” Collins said. “I think it's probably the program I hear the most favorable comments about.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., asked Fudge to ensure 20 percent of funding that’s disbursed through the agency would go to rural housing needs.
“Twenty percent of the population of the United States of America is determined or defined as rural,” he said. “If you want to know the geopolitical problems that we have, it's rural versus urban. And the chasm gets bigger and bigger. If you're ever going to unite our country back together, it's basically treating everyone equally.”