April 16, 2014

Addressing Inequality and Access to Opportunity at the World Urban Forum

The World Urban Forum 7 (WUF7) took place April 5 – 11 in Medellín, Colombia. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan served as head of the U.S. delegation where he discussed with world leaders and economic experts what President Obama has called the defining challenge of our time: growing inequality coupled with declining access to entry into the middle class.

Secretary Donovan in Secretary Donovan in ColombiaIncreasing income inequality, a growing disparity between productivity and pay, and social and economic ceilings have stalled upward mobility for millions of Americans and they now threaten to undermine some of the core values of this country – fairness and equal opportunity.  At WUF7, Secretary Donovan discussed how these aren’t just American problems; they are global problems.

While in Medellín, the U.S. delegation took a tour of the Santo Domingo neighborhood which was once considered to be among the most dangerous in the world. Today, it is bustling with economic activity, a busy transit system that uses cable cars to get residents to and from jobs in the city center, a state of the art library, and new parks and plazas that are filled with people of all ages. These changes came about through an inclusive participatory budgeting process led by the city.

What we saw in Santo Domingo demonstrates that cities around the world, as well as in the United States, can tackle the challenges of public safety, economic disinvestment and poverty and create opportunities for transformation. We saw a community that has taken bold actions to ensure future generations can grow up in a neighborhood where opportunity is not a privilege for the few, but broadly available to everyone in society.  To be sure, much work remains to be done in Medellín, but its leaders and residents are committed to continuing to build on their early success.

During WUF7, as members of the U.S. Delegation, we shared how America has put a strong emphasis on supporting community and economic development at all scales; from neighborhoods to entire metropolitan regions. Whether it be through initiatives like the White House Promise Zones initiative, Strong Cities Strong Communities or through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, we are working to make sure the federal government breaks down its silos to support comprehensive community development and brings together the public, private and nonprofit sectors to achieve the best possible results for communities.

The desire to make a better life for ourselves and our families is a universal one.  The promise of real social and economic mobility that has been a pillar of our democracy has inspired others. Our resolve to increase the economic competitiveness and equity of American communities and to improve the life outcomes of all our people cannot falter or fade.  We must complete our unfinished work to insure that all places and people in America have a ladder of opportunity to succeed.


April 10, 2014

Individuals Living with HIV/AIDS Fight Back Against Housing Discrimination

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This blog was originally posted on Disability.gov.

 “Suddenly, there were no more one-bedroom apartments available,” says Keith, describing his experience searching for rental housing in New York City with a voucher for persons living with HIV/AIDS. Although brokers initially told Keith that apartments were available in his price range, they refused to rent to him once they found out that he received a subsidy from the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration.

Having a safe, stable place to call home is especially critical to persons with HIV/AIDS, for whom housing affects their access to healthcare and their ability to receive treatment. Yet Keith found that, after encountering refusal after refusal, his housing options were limited to substandard apartments, often unfinished and in no condition for a person to live.

Enough was enough. With the assistance of the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), a nonprofit organization whose operations are partly funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Keith brought a lawsuit against one of New York City’s largest real estate rental brokers and a second company   ̶  and he won. In 2012, a judge ruled in favor of Keith and ordered the companies to pay damages and change their practices under a local law prohibiting discrimination based on source of income. By asserting his rights, Keith made a difference not only for himself, but for others who might have experienced similar discrimination.

Keith is one of several fair housing plaintiffs whose stories are told in A Matter of Place, a recent documentary film produced by FHJC under a HUD grant. We were proud to screen this film last week at HUD’s opening ceremony for Fair Housing Month. Fair Housing Month marks the anniversary of the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability. A number of state and local fair housing laws provide additional protections, based on other characteristics, such as source of income. Each year, HUD, state entities, local communities and nonprofit organizations throughout the country recognize Fair Housing Month by hosting an array of activities that enhance the public’s awareness of their fair housing rights and promote the nation’s commitment to end housing discrimination. This year’s Fair Housing Month theme is “Fair Housing Is Your Right: Use It!” Keith provides a powerful example of doing just that.

Today, complaints based on disability make up the largest single category of fair housing complaints filed with HUD. We have blogged before about the work HUD is doing to combat mortgage discrimination against individuals with disabilities, the exclusion of group homes from neighborhoods and denials of reasonable accommodations. We’ve also investigated other Fair Housing Act cases involving disability discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS.

Last fall, HUD charged a Chicago housing provider with discrimination based on disability and familial status against a prospective tenant who was HIV-positive and had a young child. HUD’s investigation found that, on learning the prospective tenant would pay the rent using disability benefits, the owner asked her to disclose the nature of her disability. When the prospective tenant revealed that she was HIV-positive, the owner replied that she did not want people with that condition living in the apartment. The Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the prospective tenant who, like Keith, also stepped forward to exercise her rights.

Fair Housing Is Your Right: Use It. I hope you will take this occasion to get the word out about housing discrimination. I also encourage you to watch A Matter of Place, and to share the film widely with anyone who might be interested in learning about Keith and others who have acted on their fair housing rights.

Persons who believe they have experienced discrimination may file a complaint by contacting HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at (800) 669-9777 (voice) or (800) 927-9275 (TTY). Housing discrimination complaints may also be filed by going to the HUD website, or by downloading HUD’s free housing discrimination mobile application, which can be accessed through Apple devices, such as the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

Bryan Greene is the Acting Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In this position, he is charged with overseeing the policy direction and operational management of this 550+ person office. Under his leadership, HUD has pursued large-scale cases to address systemic discrimination and provide widespread relief and to use HUD funding to affirmatively further fair housing. Mr. Greene has devoted his professional career to fighting housing discrimination and promoting diverse, inclusive communities.

April 8, 2014

During Fair Housing Month, it’s about “A Matter of Place”

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When I watched the documentary “A Matter of Place” produced by the Fair Housing Justice Center, I was reminded of why our work to end housing discrimination is as relevant today as it was when the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968.

Despite the perception of many, this powerful short film shows us that housing discrimination is very much a part of American life today.  One rental agent refuses to take a couple’s application fee because they are black; a man returns home to see anti-gay slurs scrawled on his door; a landlord calls one of his tenants a “program person” and offers him a roach-infested apartment because the tenant receives a housing subsidy.

These incidents still happen in cities large and small. They point to the invisible struggle families often go through to give their children and loved ones a safe and decent place to call home.

April is Fair Housing Month, and as we celebrate the passage of the Fair Housing Act, it’s a chance to reflect on how far we still have to go to end housing discrimination. The theme for this year is “Fair Housing is Your Right. Use it!” We wish there were no more instances of housing discrimination. But when it happens, we want to hear about it.  If you feel you’ve been a victim of housing discrimination, you can report it.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability, or familial status. Approximately 20 states, and the District of Columbia, including more than 150 cities, towns and counties across the nation also have additional protections that specifically prohibit discrimination against individuals based upon sexual preference and gender identity.  In addition, 12 states, the District of Columbia, and several counties and municipalities include protections for persons based on their source of income.

Each day, HUD continues to fight inequality in housing and we’ll keep up this fight along with the help from our fair housing partners.  This April, and indeed throughout the entire year, we’ll also work with our partners to spread the word that the law protects you from those who deny you your place in American life.

April 2, 2014

A Day in the Life: At HUD’s Front Door

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Welcome to another edition of our blog series, A Day in the Life, which will introduce you to HUD employees and highlight the important work they do. 

When I arrive for work at HUD in Seattle I’m pretty focused, rarely fretting about who or what is going to walk through my door. I’m pretty sure about the work I have to do, the conversations I’ll have, the meetings I’ll attend, the emails I’ll receive, and the fires I’ll have to put out. Ninety to ninety-five percent of my day is predictable.  Surprises aren’t part of my job description. Not so for Diane Schooley and Rowena Jose.

Diane Schooley and Rowena Jose (phone) Working at HUD Seattle’s front desk they’re the first people with whom callers will speak and who visitors will see when they come to HUD looking for answers to their questions and solutions to their problems.  Like me, they may have plans for their work day. They don’t always have the chance to complete them.

“On an average day we probably get between 25 and 35 telephone calls,” says Rowena.  An Army veteran, she came to HUD nearly three years ago after working for a high-tech supply firm.  “Buying computer hardware is a lot easier than helping people,” she notes, especially in the middle of an economic downturn.  Even now, she adds, call volume picks up at the end of the month, right before a three-day weekend.

“The calls are about everything and anything,” Diane adds. When she came to HUD from the State Department’s Office of Diplomatic Security to serve as the Regional Administrator’s confidential secretary, she explains, “I didn’t know what HUD was. I didn’t know what a housing authority did.  I didn’t know why so many people were desperate for a housing voucher.  I did know what a mortgage was, but that’s only because I had one.”

Both remembered the first telephone call they answered.  A tenant facing eviction called demanding that Diane tell her “what I can do to stop it.”  Rowena heard from an at-risk homeowner who wanted to know if the brand-new Emergency Homeowner Loan Program “can stop a foreclosure sale.”  They both realized then they had lots to learn.

Fortunately, they had some help.  During their first few weeks, staff from Field Policy and Management shadowed them, helping them find the information they needed, backing them up when phones began to ring off the hook, helping-out if the inquiries got too technical.

“In the Internet age,” observes Deputy Regional Administrator Donna Batch, their supervisor, “all sorts of information is at our fingertips, just a few clicks away.  But not for everybody.  There are still a lot of people who don’t have computers and many of them find it difficult to navigate their way from a problem to the information that will help them solve it.”

When Diane and Rowena started with HUD they weren’t ashamed to admit they didn’t know something.  Nor were they shy about saying, “let me get back to you.”  Then they’d do some research on HUD’s Web site, talk to a colleague or a program area and get enough information to be helpful without being dangerous.  And they keep their promises to get back to people.

Seven or eight thousand calls from all 50 states and a few foreign countries later, there’s probably not a question about HUD they can’t find the answer to.  “If HUD ever gives a everything-you-know about HUD test to our employees,” Donna says, “I’d be pretty sure Diane and Rowena would rank in the top of the class.  They’re racing across the HUD learning curve.”

Better still, Rowena and Diane say they’ve never seen their work as drudgery.  Nor have they ever awakened to the thought of not being able to take another day of customer service. “When I am done at day’s end, I’m done,” Rowena notes, “I feel pretty good but also know I’ll try to do even better for our customers tomorrow.”

And every morning they’re ready to go at it again.  “I love this job,” says Diane.  “We don’t try to solve the problems.  We just try to keep people calm, connect them with the people or the programs that can help them and to give them some hope that all will be well again.” Just about then, adds Rowena, “another phone will start ringing.”

March 27, 2014

Creating Strong, Healthy Communities

The Affordable Care Act is already helping millions of Americans, including many people in the community HUD serves. With the deadline to enroll for health insurance on March 31, this week we are devoting the HUDdle blog to how housing and health care are intertwined and how the ACA is helping us achieve HUD’s mission. There is still time to get covered, so visit www.healthcare.gov for more information.

HUD’s Office of Economic Resilience (OER) helps communities and regions build diverse, prosperous, resilient economies by enhancing quality of place; advancing effective job creation strategies; reducing housing, transportation, and energy consumption costs; promoting clean energy solutions; and creating economic opportunities for all.

A key part of building a strong community is ensuring that it’s a healthy community. So an important part of this work focuses on improving health through improved physical access to health care and by encouraging community planning that allows for more physical activity, active living, and improved access to healthy food. This means better transportation options, new clinics and medical practices in convenient locations, and making sure healthy food is available just down the street. 

Coupled with the Affordable Care Act, our work is going to create stronger communities, healthier lifestyles, and greater access to health care services.

By expanding access to health care and providing better coverage, the Affordable Care Act is already having a positive impact on people’s lives. Having health insurance is vital to receiving decent care, but personal health is also impacted by one’s home and work environment and economic and social opportunities. The relationship between the built environment and public health are well documented—living in a safe, clean, and walkable community can add years to a person’s life expectancy.

That’s why in 2012, the National Prevention Council, a coalition of 17 federal departments and agencies with the mission of improving health and wellness for all Americans, released the National Prevention Action Plan. As part of this plan, one of HUD’s roles has been to encourage recipients of Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants and Community Challenge Grants to evaluate planning and development investments, specifically looking for the potential to promote access to affordable communities and active and healthy living.

We’ve seen some encouraging results.

A HUD grantee in the Northeast is developing a Community Health Atlas and Strategies, which includes an analysis of community health factors from regional food systems and food security to obesity and drug abuse prevention. Small grants will be available to regional organizations and municipalities to implement identified strategies. Through a network of partnerships with community-based organizations, NGOs, the City, state and federal partners in a grantee community has programs designed to improve indoor air quality, encourage green jobs in the community, increase recycling rates, and reduce asthma and toxic exposure in schools and homes. 

In the Midwest, a grantee has taken a two-pronged approach to addressing fresh food access and job opportunities in low income communities. A local nonprofit organization will provide garden leadership training to empower residents to revive neighborhoods through gardening and supporting health-food entrepreneurs.  Another group will develop a food-skills and job placement training academy for the chronically unemployed and will identify partnerships for a food incubator facility to create new food related businesses.

And in the Southwest, a HUD grantee is conducting a Health Impact Assessments of each of their targeted transit district’s built environment. Healthy food and recreation access, walking and bicycling safety, and exposure to excessive heat and solar radiation will be the focus of the existing and currently planned conditions HIA.

By expanding access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and working with local communities to create healthier communities, the Obama Administration is improving the health of all Americans.