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Remarks by Secretary Andrew Cuomo
Public Housing Authorities Directors Association (PHADA)

Friday, September 17, 1999

Thank you and good morning. First, I want to thank Mr. Tabron very much for the kind introduction. I could almost end with his introduction because his point about the Ben Franklin stamp and the expression, "we will hang separately, or we will hang together," is exactly right. As goes HUD, so go you. In this town when they talk about HUD, or they talk about public housing, it's all one. As goes HUD, so goes public housing in this nation.

I think it's important to remember that. I'm not a separate cabinet department, and you're not a separate Housing Authority. When they're talking about public housing they're not distinguishing between HUD and the Housing Authority. We're all one. We're all one, and we are in this together. Our success is your success, and your success is my success. To be frank, I take credit for your success all the time, (laughter), and I want you to be able to take credit for ours.

I am the only HUD Secretary who has ever built or operated housing -- they told me that when I was first confirmed, and it sounded like an interesting piece of trivia. But the longer I've been in the job the more I've realized that it's more than just trivia. When you have built housing, you see this whole business in a different way. When you see it as a developer, as someone who had to get the construction going, and had to pay that interest every day, every day, every day for the construction loan, then these NOFAs and these applications mean something different to you.

When you actually operated housing, and had to sit down with the tenants day in and day out and hear the complaints, you understand that the tenant relationship is really a relationship that works both ways, and nobody is 100 percent right and nobody is 100 percent wrong. You see the world much differently. So that perspective has served me very well.

And most of all, that perspective leads me to an outstanding respect and admiration for what you do, because I know that we in this town talk about housing, talk about operating housing, about how it should be done, about good tenant relations -- but you actually do it, and you do it day in and day out, with not enough money, in some of the most difficult circumstances, and for that you have my undying admiration and respect. So I want to begin today by applauding all of you. Thank you for what you do.

Now if I do my job right I'll help you do what you do better. A couple of points on last year, before we get to this year, because I think this is a very special opportunity that you have here today. These issues that we're debating are not little issues. These are major, major issues, and your understanding of them, your weighing in on them, is critical. The difference between the Administration's proposal and the Hill proposal is night and day. You can agree or disagree, but they are very different proposals. It is night and day and you have to understand them.

There will be some who will say they the Administration bill and the Hill proposal are basically the same. They are not the same. They are the same only on the theory that the taxidermist and the veterinarian are in the same business.(Laughter). And public housing should not go the way of the taxidermist because it is more alive and more vital than ever before.

Last year was a banner year for public housing. We had the best budget in over a decade. We made some smart, informed reforms that were a long time coming, but they made all the difference. Changing the income eligibility for public housing will make all the difference in the world in the long term, in my opinion. The raising of the income eligibility to a reasonable rate under reasonable circumstances. The merging of the two Section 8 programs. The formula Drug Elimination Grants so you can plan on that funding and you know it's going to come, and it's not one competition after another. The flexible funding on the operating subsidies and the capital funds, so you can actually put the funds where you need them. The understanding that public housing is not just the large public housing authorities. But indeed, the vast majority of public housing in this nation are the smaller housing authorities who aren't in the headlines every day, but who are doing the work every day.

This year involves a very different approach. Let me tell you the case that I make when I go to the Hill and what I say about public housing, and then you fashion the case that you're going to make.

My case has three points. The first point is this: public housing is an overwhelming success in this nation. I say to the United States Congress, forget the stereotype of public housing as a failure. That was wrong, it was a mistake, and I will not be a HUD Secretary who plays into that mistake, who would suggest that the best thing we can do about public housing is to blow it up. I don't run from public housing, I run towards public housing.

Public housing had a bad reputation and a bad stereotype that was never true, but has been allowed to stand for too long. When you say public housing in this nation, when you say public housing on the Hill they think Cabrini Green. They think State Street corridor, four and half miles in Chicago, building after building after building. They think the West Dallas Housing Authority, low rise buildings that go on forever. They think Desire in New Orleans. They think "project". They think "slum". That's what comes to their mind and they are repelled by that image. So you say public housing and they say what a disaster that was. The last thing we need is more public housing -- blow it up. Those guys know, the guys who are pushing the plunger are the guys who see the future for public housing.

They're not, because that wasn't public housing. There are 3,400 public housing authorities in this nation and those large failures are by far the small, small handful. Ninety-seven percent of the public housing authorities work extraordinarily well because they've done right in the first place. They never had those large complexes that concentrated people with a density that couldn't work.

Those large buildings, those large projects, those concentrations were destined to fail the day they were designed. They died on the architect's planning table, they were never going to work. Smaller projects, mixed income. What we now call scattered site, fewer throughout the community -- those are the Housing Authorities that work and those are the majority of them.

Not only do we have this rhetorical case, but we now have the proof, the proof that public housing works. Last year when I went to make the case about public housing I was arguing a counter-intuitive case. I'm talking about small, well-run Housing Authorities, but they're seeing Cabrini Green. I said, no, they really run well. And they said, well, do you have any information that can back that up? I said, well I go all day long, I see them, I'm telling you, they work very well. They said, do you have any inspections, do you have any reports? Well, the Housing Authorities send in reports. Yes, but do you have any verifiable data that can speak to how public housing looks and works? Well, no, not really. Short answer.

So we came up with the PHAS system. We've just started it. It is a national inspection reporting system. We're going to have to work on it, I know. I'm sure when HUD starts a new system it's not going to be perfect. I know HUD well enough to know that. But I also know that when we get the chance to tell the truth about public housing we're going to change the impression, and therefore the reaction, to public housing 180 degrees.

And the PHAS is already doing that. When I go to Congress this year and tell the public housing story, I can tell the story through the first ever national inspection. Do you know what it said, the national inspection -- the inspectors and the engineers and their computerized, hand-held devices? The inspectors found what we knew they were going to find, which is housing that works better than anyone imagined. Three out of four Housing Authorities, after 11,000 inspections, are high performers. 87 percent are in good or excellent physical condition.

And when they asked the residents of public housing what they thought about the housing, 75 percent of the residents said they were satisfied or very satisfied. That is a record that anyone should be proud of. I will put that record of public housing against any record anywhere -- certainly any government program, but I'll also put it against any private sector program.

You look at customer satisfaction in public housing and then compare it to other industries. Seventy-five percent of our residents say satisfied or very satisfied. What percent of people who stay in a hotel say they were satisfied or very satisfied with their stay? Seventy one percent. We do better than hotels. We do better than utility companies. We do better than customers of banks. We do better than customers of McDonald's and Burger King. And we do better than customers of retail industries.

Ask our customers -- public housing is a success. Inspect our buildings -- public housing is a success. Look at our books -- public housing is a success. And we have the data to show it. That's the first point.

The second point is this: our role has evolved. We're not the Public Housing Authorities of 20 years ago. We're not just housers, we are community development catalysts. We don't just house people any more, we change communities and we change lives. Don't think of us as just housing organizers or housing administrators, we also do economic development, we also do community development.

There are three legs to the stool. We do the physical development, but we do the human capital development, and the economic development as well, and we do it all simultaneously.

When we're working with a family we know it's not just about housing. We know it's about jobs and training and education. So when we talk about HUD we're not just talking about HUD and operating subsidies. We're talking about CDBG, and HOME, and Empowerment Zones, and the EDI program, and all of them working.

And the third point is this: now is the time to invest in public housing. We've proven that its a success. We've proven that it's more than just housing, that it is literally an asset to the entire community. Now is the time to invest in this asset.

All bills are the same? All bills are not the same. My job is to try to get as much funding as possible to Public Housing Authorities, and then to try to get it to you in a way that makes it the most valuable. The operating subsidy is higher in the Administration's bill than in either the House or the Senate. Hope VI is higher in the Administration's bill. The number of vouchers is higher in the Administration bill. That is important. The amount of funds that we provide is important, and now is the time to do it.

You have the strongest economy in history, why not invest in public housing today? All the excuses are gone. For years we heard all the reasons why we can't do it. Why we can't provide funding. We had the deficit to take care of, we had everything else going on. Well, all of that is gone. You have the strongest economy in the history of the nation. Why don't we invest in public housing? Why don't we put the assets where they'll reap dividends for the future to come. And that's what public housing is.

That they should present a budget proposal that has no new housing in it is extreme. The number of new units which would be produced by the Senate budget or the House budget is zero. Zero is an extreme number. They don't like the word extreme, well then don't act extreme and we won't use the word extreme.

You have the strongest economy in history. You have the highest need for affordable housing in history. How many people need your business? More people than ever before in history. 5.3 million American families need affordable housing. The highest number in history. How many units will they produce? Zero. How can that be? You have the strongest economy, the highest need, and you're going to build zero units.

How low is zero? It's the lowest production level in 30 years. That's extreme, that inexcusable. That is their proposal and that's why I want you to look at the Administration's proposal. We have 100,000 new units, which is a 100,000 more than zero -- but it is not all the units we need either. I don't come before you saying that the Administration's proposal takes care of all our problems. I wish we could do more, because we need to do more, but 100,000 is at least a start down the road, and at least builds on the success of last year.

That's the case that I make to Congress.

My last point and my last suggestion is this: when you go up you are not just public housing officials and housing administrators, you are much, much more than that, in my opinion. Because public housing is really a sacred vow that this nation made. This year we're going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Housing Act. And when you read that Act over, which I would suggest to all of you, it stands for a such a beautiful dream and a beautiful vision.

They were not talking about public housing as public housing, as a safe, clean, decent place to live. They were talking about public housing literally as part of the American promise. They were saying that public housing was a platform for you to come and build your American dream.

It was really representative of what the nation was all about. Come here, the nation said, welcome to America. We will welcome you with open arms and we will help you improve yourself, because if you improve yourself and your family, you improve all of us. We're going to work with you to do that.

And we're going to start by giving you a safe, clean, decent place to live where you can marshal your strength, and marshal your resources, and grow your family. We'll give you a home, and we'll give you an education, and then you can really start to learn and to grow.

The public housing unit which we speak about now, was not a public housing unit, it was the first step on the ladder of opportunity. It was the American promise saying, come to us. We open our arms and we embrace you. You are keeping that dream alive. Sure, you serve the resident who is in that unit, but that unit is also a candle that illuminates the American promise, and don't forget that.

This nation has to remember the promise that made it great in the first place. We have to renew that promise and keep that promise strong, and be proud about that promise. We are the welcoming arms for the nation, and that's a job to be proud of.

That is a case to make to this Congress and it is a winning case. When you put that together with this strong economy and your success, there is no reason why we shouldn't be celebrating and rejoicing about public housing, investing in public housing, and building more public housing. You make that case and together we will.

Thank you and God bless you.

Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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