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.




March 26, 2014

Quality Healthcare is Key to Strong Neighborhoods

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This week is a very important week for our country.  We are in the final stretch of the historic inaugural enrollment period of affordable health care for all Americans and I have been overwhelmed at the response.  Expanding access to quality, affordable healthcare is key to ensuring that people of all ages and all backgrounds are able to have economic security and peace of mind when it comes to their personal lives. 

Working in HUD’s Department of Public and Indian Housing, our mission is to make sure people have safe, decent and affordable homes in neighborhoods across the country.  We are also dedicated to revitalizing impoverished and low-wealth neighborhoods through various programs, such as HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program, which focuses not only on the housing, but also on the surrounding community.  While some may think of having an affordable home or revitalizing a neighborhood as being separate from maintaining one’s health, it is not. Neighborhood revitalization means access to good schools and quality transportation, which in turn, provides access to stable jobs and better healthcare centers.

The individuals and families to whom HUD provides assistance are among the most vulnerable in our society. The average income for a HUD assisted family is $12,500; too often, they have no opportunity to obtain health insurance because, in many cases, prior to the Affordable Care Act, health care was too expensive for those families.  Compared to the general population and other poor households, individuals in HUD-assisted housing have a higher rate of usage of emergency rooms and are more likely to have health problems, such as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure.  Plain and simple, when residents aren’t saddled with high medical bills, they can go to work or school, and pay their rent

The Affordable Care Act can benefit all individuals served by HUD programs, including Section 8 residents, individuals staying in homeless shelters and public housing residents. Meeting the health needs of these individuals and families will help them start a fresh chapter in their lives and contribute to the overall success of HUD’s programs.


March 24, 2014

How the Affordable Care Act is Helping HUD Combat Homelessness

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Note: 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  the HUDdle blog will be devoted 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.

In my role at HUD, I focus on combating homelessness. In 2010, the Obama Administration launched a federal strategic plan, Opening Doors, to combat homelessness. The goals we set are ambitious, but achievable. We are on track to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015; end chronic homelessness by 2016; end homelessness for families, youth and children by 2020; and we are setting a path to eradicate all types of homelessness in the United States. 

Our success in reaching these goals will rely on many factors, and the Affordable Care Act is a critical tool for us. The health care system is changing for the better and there are enormous opportunities to help people who are experiencing homelessness get off the streets and into permanent housing.

If we take advantage of all the opportunities of the Affordable Care Act in order to end homelessness, it will show that no one chooses to be homeless when given a real choice of a place that feels like home and the ongoing community supports to help them stabilize and recover.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, states can choose to expand their Medicaid coverage to all adults with incomes below 133% of poverty. In return, states receive 100 percent of federal funding to cover those costs for the first three years and no less than 90 percent federal support for those costs in the years following.

So far, 25 States and the District of Columbia have taken up this Medicaid expansion opportunity, giving millions more of their residents access to affordable health care. If all 25 states that haven’t expanded coverage did, approximately 5.4 million additional uninsured Americans would gain access to health insurance coverage by 2016.

States that have expanded Medicaid have removed the hoops you need to jump through to get people eligible for health benefits. In every state that has expanded Medicaid a person who has been living on the streets and in shelters can now be enrolled for health care.

This will make a huge difference in people’s lives. Many people experiencing homelessness or at-risk of homelessness have serious health needs and pre-existing conditions. Before the Affordable Care Act, these conditions made the barriers to receiving adequate care even greater for those in need and more costly to the general population because their only source for treatment was the emergency room. By expanding Medicaid, we can help people who are experiencing or are on the verge of homelessness stabilize their lives, receive badly needed care and treatment, and give them the opportunity to recover.

The Affordable Care Act creates new incentives for better care for those who need it most and introduces new tools for states to provide more services that could help a person find and retain housing. This means, for people experiencing homelessness, the benefits of the Affordable Care Act can really make the difference between living on the street and having a roof over their heads.

Making Progress for our Nation’s Families

Cross posted from White House.gov

Shortly after he took office, President Obama created the White Housing Council on Women and Girls. Chaired by Valerie Jarrett, the council is charged with ensuring there is a coordinated effort between federal agencies of policies and programs that impact women and families.

As a partner of the interagency council, HUD serves as a safety net for vulnerable women and girls, whether they are living with HIV/AIDS or living in shelters for victims of abuse. Providing them with physical and emotional safety, HUD works hard to place women and girls in transitional housing, public housing and rental housing, where they will experience a continuum of care ranging from substance abuse counseling, to financial literacy classes to job training.

Through the Continuum of Care grant competition, HUD has awarded $46.7 million to continue 349 projects that predominately serve victims of domestic violence as well as an additional $2.6 million to support 28 new projects. All these projects provide much needed housing and services for victims of domestic violence.

In 2013, HUD was able to expand housing protections for victims of domestic violence thanks to the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. This allowed HUD to make necessary changes and begin alerting the public of how the changes will impact tenants and housing providers in HUD-assisted housing and shelters.

While ensuring victims of domestic violence don’t end up homeless, HUD is also continuing to identify best practices, share guidance and award funding to communities based on the policy priorities of the Opening Doors plan to prevent and end homelessness. Since 2010, family homelessness has decreased by 10.7 percent.

Last year, HUD graduated 3,400 families from the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program. This means they were free of welfare assistance and employed. Over 90 percent of FSS participants are female-headed households, 33 percent of graduates no longer needed rental assistance, and 15 percent went on to purchase a home.

HUD has also aggressively investigated and resolved cases where women experienced lending discrimination for being pregnant or on parental leave. In 2013 alone, HUD settled 28 cases obtaining almost $300,000 for 43 complainants. Thanks to HUD’s efforts, some of the country’s largest lenders have changed their policies and practices on maternity leave lending.

HUD continues to make great strides in ensuring our policies and programs are taking into account the needs of women and girls. HUD had many great accomplishments last year, but we have work left to do. As we look forward to making more progress in 2014, we are driven by what President Obama said in the State of the Union, “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

Click here for a fuller list of accomplishments by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shaun Donovan is the Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development