HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan Interview
BR: How has your training as an architect informed your career in policy?
SD: What I appreciated so much about my training is the interdisciplinary way that architects approach problems. The process of being trained in design ideally is about being able to integrate, to bring together different kinds of constituencies.
One of the reasons I became so fascinated with affordable housing, and more broadly community development, is because they connect to so many other things. When a family chooses a home, they're choosing much more than that. They're choosing access to jobs; they're choosing public safety.
Our work at HUD is, by its very nature, deeply interdisciplinary. What I've been very excited about in the Obama administration is that the president has asked all of us to break down the silos that federal agencies have operated in—whether that's collaborating with Ray LaHood, in the Department of Transportation, or Lisa Jackson, [head of the Environmental Protection Agency]; collaborating with [U.S. Education Secretary] Arne Duncan on our efforts to bring together better housing; or collaborating with Steve Chu, in Department of Energy, on our greening efforts.
The other thing I would say is that HUD’s current workspace is in an iconic Marcel Breuer building whose design reduces the kind of collaboration and engagement I just talked about. So, good design begins at home, literally and figuratively. I've listened to our agency’s employees and our partners about the important message that our workspace sends out about the kind of agency we are and the way we work.
We will not be able to be a model of collaboration if we don't have a work environment that allows us to collaborate within the department effectively. So we've begun a process with GSA to fundamentally redesign the HUD workspace, which I'm enormously excited about.
BR: Speaking of priorities, President Obama has on his plate financial reform, immigration, energy, Iraq, Afghanistan. But he was also a community organizer. So, with all of those other challenges, where do better communities fall on the administration’s priority level?
SD: I'll never forget going to interview with him and immediately getting the sense that his dedication to the community work we’re doing is personal for him. It's a very high priority.
In terms of creating the first-ever Office of Urban Affairs at the White House level—that was a real signal of the importance of these issues to the president. You've heard him talk, time and again, about the importance of building a green economy, and connecting that to investments in peoples’ homes.
BR: Do you see financial-regulatory reform, which perhaps is the single largest priority right now on the legislative front, having a direct impact and benefit on architects?
SD: Absolutely. Unless we can get a financial system in this country that drives the right kind of investments, we’re never going to have the kind of places in this country that we really want. We need to have a more balanced housing policy, and financial regulatory reform is about creating more balance.
The other thing I would say is, ultimately, whether it's greening our housing or creating more livable communities, the general approach is a highly leveraged transaction. Just about everyone uses a loan. The way that we drive those lending products has an enormous effect on where we invest.
For example: Today when you get a loan, no one asks what you spend on transportation. But, in fact, transportation is the second biggest expense for the average family. So it doesn't make any sense to have a mortgage system that doesn't factor in, “well, if you're going to spend half as much on transportation, you can afford to spend more on housing.”
Setting up a financial system that can drive investment decisions in more rational ways has an enormous amount to do with where we end up putting homes and what our metropolitan areas and rural regions look like. That's one of the things we're doing in our Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities: $10 million to developing a joint housing/transportation affordability index that, if it's precise enough, could be used by lenders.
BR: Final message for architects?
SD: Look at the mistakes we made in the past by not emphasizing design in affordable housing, and not integrating that type of housing more effectively into our communities. We are all living with the consequences. It’s sobering. You don’t have to be an architect to understand the impact that good design can have on somebody’s life.
For too many years, we've effectively marginalized affordable housing: we've marginalized it in the design professions, and we've marginalized it in the way we build public housing. It is financed in a completely separate way from the way we produce other housing in this country.
The opportunity we have with Via Verde and similar projects is that they are integrated with market-rate housing. When you start to do that, it's no longer just affordable housing design. It becomes a broader process.