Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at Housing Washington 2012

Tacoma Convention Center
Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Thank you, Senator Murray -- for that extremely kind introduction and for your extraordinary leadership to make Washington families whole in the wake of what has been an unprecedented crisis.

It's great to see so many critical partners here this morning -- advocates, representatives from nonprofits and financial institutions and so many others.

Today, I want to talk to you about the partnership Senator Murray and I have forged together these last three-and-a-half years.

I want to talk a little about how the leadership she provided helped save the housing market here in Washington and throughout the country -- for families who own as well as those who rent.

I want to talk about how she understood that this crisis presented a unique moment to strengthen the economic security of America's middle class -- and those who have fought decades to join it.

And ultimately, I want to talk about why we are fighting against those who would roll back so much of the progress we've made -- and to describe what's at stake and more importantly, who's at risk.

Rescuing Our Housing Market

For me, my partnership with Senator Murray began in the days just before President Obama took office.

I'm sure everyone here remembers all too well what it was like then.

800,000 jobs were lost just that month.

Home prices were cratering for 30 straight months.

And foreclosures were setting records on a monthly basis.

None of you have forgotten those days. That's because you have been on the front lines since day one, advocating for homeowners, residents and communities during the crisis.

But together, we pushed back. With Senator Murray's partnership, we worked to help keep families in their homes. And to ensure families still had access to the housing market, we extended and expanded the First Time Homebuyer tax credit -- and provided critical support to the FHA.

But from the beginning, Senator Murray recognized that it wasn't just homeowners that were hurt by the crisis -- that nearly half of those displaced by foreclosures were renters.

And as we worked to craft the Recovery Act, I saw myself how her first concern was those who the crisis put most at risk:

The men, women and families who were going to fall into homelessness.

It was with her leadership and guidance that we crafted the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing program -- or HPRP.

Hailing from a state that has been a leader in the fight to end homelessness, Senator Murray understood providing families with short-term assistance was all many folks need to get back on their feet. And with this effort, we expected to help about a half million people.

She also saw how foreclosures were impacting not simply individual homeowners -- but whole communities. And together, we worked to scale up the Neighborhood Stabilization Program which helped communities struggling with concentrated foreclosures.

Right here in Tacoma, you can see how NSP dollars are transforming a vacant, abandoned property in the Southend neighborhood into 13 new single-family homes for affordable homeownership.

With the partnership of Habitat for Humanity, these dollars are making the dream of owning a home possible for families. And with new sidewalks, a play area, and a community garden they're also keeping the dream alive for their new neighbors.

Senator Murray also understood something else about our housing crisis:

That frozen credit markets were a threat not only to homeowners -- but to anyone in need of affordable housing.

Nowhere was that clearer than her efforts to revive the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

This audience knows that the tax credit was the single most important capital source for funding affordable housing -- and with a thousand developments stalled virtually overnight, the irreversible loss of the tax credit market was a distinct possibility.

Well, because of the Recovery Act, Treasury's Tax Credit Exchange Program and HUD's Tax Credit Assistance Program, we were able to keep tens of thousands of affordable homes in the pipeline -- and thousands of construction workers on the job.

And those weren't the only tools we had in our toolbox to preserve affordable housing during those uncertain times.

Just as important in some ways to liquidity during the credit crunch was Treasury's New Issue Bond Program, which was critical to the outstanding work done throughout this crisis by folks like Kim Herman and his team at the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.

Obviously, there's more work to be done. This is still a challenging environment.

But at a time when investors were deeply concerned about the future of the housing market, the tax credit, and the tax-exempt bond market, these efforts were critical to keeping funds flowing to single and multifamily housing -- and supporting thousands of good-paying construction jobs at a moment when we needed them most.

Indeed, because of the work we've done to pull together, today we stand at a far more encouraging moment.

Because we provided help to homeowners facing foreclosure and the communities they live in, the number of people falling into foreclosure is the lowest it's been in five years. In fact, places with targeted neighborhood stabilization investments have seen vacancies fall and home prices rise.

Because we jumpstarted developments stalled by the economic crisis, we not only provided critical affordable housing during the crisis -- we also saved the tax credit for future generations.

And because we provided families with rent, basic case-management services and something as simple as a security deposit or utility payment, more than 1.3 million people were saved from homelessness. Cities report that about 90 percent of families who received rapid re-housing assistance through the Recovery Act remain housed today. And no less than the US Conference of Mayors say that HPRP is "fundamentally changing" the way communities respond to homelessness.

Building on Our Progress

None of this is to say the job is done. But taken in tandem with the best year of home sales since the crisis began--with the number of underwater homeowners dropping 11 percent since end of last year and home price improvements in the first half of this year lifting 1.3 million families above water--our housing market has momentum we haven't seen in over five years.

And with the recent $25 billion settlement with the five largest servicers, struck earlier this year by the Administration and 49 bipartisan state attorneys general, we have critical tools to keep that momentum going. In fact, a preliminary report covering just the first few months of the settlement showed that roughly 165,000 homeowners, including 3,600 here in Washington, had already received almost $14 billion in relief -- $76,000 on average.

Just as importantly, the settlement is focused on fixing the issues that led to so many of these problems in the first place.

Because of the settlement, all five banks have committed to providing a single point of contact when at-risk families ask for help -- part of more than 300 additional servicing standards that build upon the new protections introduced when the President announced the Homeowner Bill of Rights.

That means, no more dropped calls, no more lost paperwork, and no more runaround with no consequences.

But the job's not done. One-in-five homeowners here in Washington--folks who are doing the right thing, and making their mortgage payments every month--still can't take advantage of record-low interest rates because they're underwater.

That's why last fall, the President challenged us to step up our efforts. Within six weeks, we had identified barriers that were preventing people with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from refinancing.

And as a result, nearly 1.7 million more homeowners have applied for refinancing through the program since these changes went into effect, and stand to save on average $3,000 per year.

We also dramatically cut fees for FHA refinancing -- and in just the first three months, we saw a more than 200 percent increase in applications.

But even with refinancing at a 3-year high--up 60 percent here in Washington since these changes were put into place--we need to do more.

That's why President Obama is pushing Congress to act on a series of legislative proposals that will help families refinance and rebuild what they've lost.

While the first would provide homeowners current on their mortgage whose loans aren't backed by government access to simple, low-cost refinancing, the second would eliminate the remaining barriers for homeowners with loans from Fannie and Freddie.

A third would encourage underwater homeowners to rebuild equity -- the biggest source of how we send our kids to college, start a small business and save for retirement.

The final bill, the Project Rebuild Act, sponsored by Senator Jack Reed, builds on Neighborhood Stabilization, which proved that giving communities the tools they need to partner with non-profits can turn vacant and abandoned properties into community assets.

Project Rebuild would not only scale NSP up dramatically -- it would also create 200,000 jobs across the country.

As we speak, Majority Leader Reid is fighting to get the first of these bills to a vote in the Senate in the first days Congress comes back after the election.

And Senator Murray and I need your help.

We need you to stand ready to make the case -- that tearing down barriers to refinancing is critical to not only protecting the communities you serve but also rebuilding their economies.

Building Strong, Resilient Neighborhoods

But even as homeowners and renters begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel and emerge from this crisis, one of the things that's always struck me about Senator Murray is that she's never focused solely on the crisis at hand -- but also on the broader challenges facing the families of Washington and the country.

She knew that middle class families in Washington and those who aspire to it had been struggling long before this crisis hit.

She knew that it was no coincidence that the places that faced the brunt of the economic crisis and had the highest foreclosure rates and the deepest job losses, were often the most unsustainable -- with the most troubled housing, the poorest performing schools, the least access to transportation, and the far too little economic opportunity.

And worst of all, she knew that by the time President Obama took office, 1-in-5 kids were already living in poverty.

Because of all this, as our friend Ron Sims put it so well, we were able to predict a child's lifespan not by their education or by their parents' financial position -- but by their zip code.

But Senator Murray also understood something else:

That leaving kids behind in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty isn't just wrong for them -- it's also wrong for our economy.

A few years ago, I saw that commitment for myself when I joined Senator Murray to see how the Recovery Act was not only providing 850 mixed-income homes for residents of Seattle's Rainier Vista -- but just as importantly, linking those efforts to the surrounding community, from playgrounds and a Boys & Girls Club, to local bus lines and the new LINK light rail system.

That's the idea behind our Choice Neighborhoods program -- of which there has been no greater champion in the Congress than Senator Patty Murray.

Choice Neighborhoods builds on the success of HOPE VI, which created over 90,000 public housing units in healthy, mixed-income communities -- leveraging twice the federal investment in additional capital and raising the average income of residents by 75 percent or more.

Here in Tacoma, the Salishan Hope VI development is not only transforming over 1,200 mixed-income homes. With a strong commitment to Section 3,which ensures local projects create opportunities for low-income residents in the neighborhood, it's also hired and trained hundreds of residents of the Salishan public housing community.

And through an innovative partnership with the school district, the Tacoma public housing authority is focusing on McCarver elementary school to ensure housing stability and services contribute to the turnaround of a historically low-performing school.

Salishan and McCarver remind us that in some neighborhoods, transforming public housing isn't enough.

With Choice Neighborhoods, communities have the tools they need to address the capital needs of not just distressed public housing, but all kinds of HUD-assisted housing in a neighborhood.

And by aligning those investments with the Department of Education's Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which is modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone, it puts school reforms at the center of those efforts.

In the first two years alone, Choice Neighborhoods grants have leveraged $1.6 billion in additional capital--over 12 times the $130 million federal investment--by forging dozens of partnerships between not only housing authorities and owners of multifamily housing but also school districts, universities, police departments, and hospitals -- making those who have been at the table for our most successful HOPE VI developments full partners in these communities' transformations.

In Seattle's Yesler neighborhood, a stone's throw from the City's commercial business district, the community is using its Choice Neighborhoods Grant to transform an aging public housing complex into 6,000 mixed-income homes -- leveraging this investment to build retail, educational facilities, health clinics, and additional transportation infrastructure.

And by partnering with Seattle University to increase the number of children enrolled in evidence-based early learning programs, the community is making a commitment not just to families today -- but to its economy for the years to come.

Ending Homelessness

Choice Neighborhoods and Promise Neighborhoods recognize that rebuilding educational opportunities for children trapped in poor neighborhoods is just as important as rebuilding the neighborhoods themselves.

But as this Administration understands, when government does not act alone, but as a leader among private and non-profit partners, goals like these don't just begin to take shape.

For the first time, they become achievable.

Take homelessness. I've already discussed the extraordinary leadership Senator Murray provided to prevent and end homelessness through the Recovery Act.

Well, for her, that was only the beginning.

Let's not forget, only a decade ago, it was widely believed that the men and women who slept on our street corners--who struggled with chemical dependency and mental illness and who often cycle from shelters to jails to emergency rooms--would always be homeless.

Some believed these folks even wanted to be homeless.

But Senator Murray didn't. She had been watching how leaders here in Washington responded to homelessness very closely.

Like me, she saw a Journal of the American Medical Association study that featured Seattle's 1811 Eastlake -- and the striking results supportive housing there produced.

She saw that in the year after homeless men and women entered 1811 Eastlake, days spent in jail were cut almost in half.

Medicaid costs dropped by more than 40 percent.

And hospital visits dropped by almost a third.

Indeed, with evidence that combining housing and supportive services had reduced chronic homelessness nationally by more than a third inside of five years, she knew we could do more than just "fight" homelessness.

She believed we could actually end homelessness.

And she saw that we could do it for one of our most vulnerable populations: our veterans.

Think about this: today, we still have more homeless Vietnam-era veterans on our streets than troops that died in the war itself -- this at a time when more than 1 million service members are expected to transition out of the military and back into communities throughout America by 2016.

For Senator Murray--and President Obama--this was the problem:

These veterans had exceeded our every expectation on the battlefield.

But before we took office, our country wasn't living up to our obligations to them.

While the innovative HUD-VASH program had shown so much promise--combining HUD's Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance with case management and clinical services provided by the VA--by the time President Obama was sworn in, it had leased properties to less than 1,200 veterans.

But with Senator Murray's focus and leadership, that began to change -- and fast.

With her pushing us to document our results and combine different tools to speed progress, we've been able to house more than 30,000 veterans since the President took office -- helping 1-in-5 veterans get off of our nation's streets in 2011 alone.

This kind of progress has helped us make the case for more investments in a tough budget environment -- and, indeed, the bill she shepherded through the Appropriations Committee earlier this year includes $75 million in new funding for HUD-VASH.

Building on that success, the Administration launched Opening Doors--the first federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness--committing 19 federal agencies to ending chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years, ending homelessness for families, youth, and children within a decade -- and setting us on a path to end all homelessness.

Now, some may think we can't afford to be this ambitious.

But Washington State has taught us a critical lesson about homelessness:

That the real cost to the taxpayer isn't the cost of housing the homeless, but rather the revolving door of emergency rooms, shelters, and jails that results when we don't.

Housing and Communities Built to Last

For me--and for Senator Murray--this work is about people like Darren Spencer -- an Army veteran here in Tacoma.

Like so many who have served our country, in the years since he got out of the service, life has been anything but easy. Despite hearing loss and depression, he's worked job-after-job--from a warehouse shipping clerk to forklift operator, to moving furniture--just to keep a roof over his head and provide for his son.

The problem is, when the economic crisis hit, folks like Darren were the first to feel it -- losing those part-time jobs, falling behind on the rent and feeling like no matter how hard he worked, he could never get a break and never get back up. Not for long anyway.

It was only thanks to a HUD-VASH voucher he received last year that Darren Spencer has been able to get up -- every morning, in his own home in the Hilltop neighborhood. As he said, "It just feels good to be able to say I have a place to stay, and my kid has a place to lay his head."

That's why the budget debate in Washington isn't just about whether we create jobs faster or grow the economy.

It's also about whether we ask everyone to pay their fair share -- so that we don't balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable.

It's about connecting residents of public housing to the 25 percent of Seattle jobs within a half a mile of Yesler Terrace.

It's about the Puget Sound Regional Council using a Sustainable Communities grant from HUD to plan a regional economy that is not just nationally, but globallycompetitive -- with transit stations located so that people can reduce the amount of money they spend on housing and transportation.

And so the choices are very clear.

Do we put 200,000 people back to work rebuilding vacant homes? Or do we allow abandonment in our hardest-hit neighborhoods to keep dragging down the property values of our neighbors and our home equity along with it?

Do we continue making progress on ending veterans homelessness? Or do we leave heroes like Darren Spencer to fight their toughest battle alone?

Do we settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while more Americans barely get by? Or do we work together to build a nation where everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same rules?

Those are the choices we face in the coming days -- and with your help and partnership, as we have so many times before, I have no doubt Washington State and Patty Murray can help our nation make the rightchoice.

Thank you for this opportunity -- thank you for inviting me.


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