Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the National NeighborWorks Association Annual Membership Meeting

Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thank you Chris, for that kind introduction. What a wonderful way to start the day.

Probably more than any other time that we have come together, it is a moment of great opportunity, but also of great danger for the work we do.

I think there is nothing more important than highlighting the fundamental nature of why we do this work every day. 

And it is because home matters. 

It matters to each of us no matter who we are -- the richest, the poorest, anywhere in between, anywhere in this country. Home is so fundamental to the work that we do and to our lives. 

I have to start by saying thank you for your partnership. It's been a remarkable four years. I am looking forward to that continued partnership in the next four years -- and beyond that.

More than 190 NeighborWorks organizations from across the nation have come together, lifting your voice on all of these important areas we work on, from homeownership education and counseling to responsible lending and the effects of foreclosure on neighborhoods.

I want to spend some time talking about why home matters from a professional perspective. As the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development I need to talk about why home matters and what we are doing to ensure that every American can access a decent, safe place to live.

But I wanted to start on a more personal note and talk about how I got started in housing and how I came to understand why home matters.

Home Matters

Many of you know that I am a New Yorker. I grew up in New York City at a time when not only were people questioning whether American cities would survive--this was the era of "the Bronx is burning" and the New York Post headline, "Ford to NYC: Drop Dead"--but it was also the moment when homelessness was exploding across the city and the country.

And I will never forget walking to school down Park Avenue -- one of the most iconic streets in the City -- and walking past homeless folks. That was the first thing I would see in the morning.

And I remember thinking "How is it that in the wealthiest city, in the wealthiest country in the world, we have folks sleeping on the streets?"

And for me, that is really where this questioning of "Why is home so important?" began. There is nothing like meeting someone who has lost their home, to make you understand why home matters. 

That is what first inspired me. That's why I began volunteering at a homeless shelter during college. My first job after graduating brought me to DC as an intern at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

That was how I got started to a career and a life dedicated to demonstrating why housing matters.

I know each of you has your own story about why it matters, but for all of us, it begins with that fundamental understanding of why home matters. 

National Importance

I'd like to take a step back from the personal and look much more broadly at why home matters to everyone across our country.  

We understand today, more than at almost any time in the country's history, that when we get "home" wrong, when you see a crisis in housing like we saw, we not only risk homelessness for individual families, but we risk the security of our entire world financial system.

That is what we were facing -- a crisis brought on because we didn't pay attention to making sure that home mattered. Not just that a loan mattered, or profits mattered, but that we were actually creating opportunities for people to become homeowners and to stay in those homes. 

But I'm also happy to say that what we are seeing today is the reverse. That when we get housing right--when we help families make the right choices and focus on rebuilding our economic system around home mattering in the right ways--we actually are seeing a recovery that is driven by housing.

The President in his State of the Union address just a few weeks ago talked about how central housing and home are to our economic recovery. 

All of the most important economic indicators we look at show the housing market leading the way -- home prices, home sales, affordability -- are all at the strongest levels we have seen since the crisis began.

And even just looking at the most recent jobs report supports this. It shows that unemployment continues to fall. In February alone we've added almost 250,000 new private sector jobs, 48,000 which are in construction.

While home is important to each of us, it is a critical piece of our economy--another area that home matters.  

In that State of the Union Address, the President also spoke about something else: an effort to create Ladders of Opportunity for all Americans.

The president explained that that a fundamental premise of the compact that this nation has made with its citizens is that if you work hard and play by the rules that you will have a chance to get ahead and that your kids will have a chance to have a better life than you had. 

Regardless of where you come from, the color of your skin, or how much money you make -- that basic tenet of the American Dream -- is about the ability to access opportunity if you do your part. 

In particular we have seen the critical role that home plays in that compact, which we have too often seen eroded. 

We all know that when a family chooses a place to live they're not just choosing a house -- they're choosing a school for their kids, access to jobs and transportation, public safety, and all the services that neighborhood provides. They are choosing the things that are important to them -- their vision of home.

And yet, we have too many communities in this country where the life chances of a child -- what their education will be, what their health will be, what their life span will be -- those fundamental opportunities are being cut off simply because of the zip code these kids grow up in. Because they are not getting in their neighborhood, near their home, those basic pieces, those fundamental building blocks of the American dream and the American promise.

This is not just a small number of children. Twenty percent of American kids are growing up in poverty today. We lose $500 billion dollars a year in economic activity and productivity because we are not investing in those kids.  

We have to do more, particularly in the most challenged neighborhoods.

The Promise Zones proposed by the President focus our efforts on 20 of the most challenged communities around this nation. We will begin with home. We will use our Choice Neighborhoods approach that remakes the most troubled public and assisted housing. We will use our Neighborhood Stabilization efforts that focus on vacant and abandoned privately owned housing.

We will integrate and align existing Federal programs by targeting resources not just at housing, but to job creation, public safety, and education. We will bring our Promise neighborhood efforts to rebuilding schools on the model of Harlem Children Zones. We will bring criminal justice efforts from the Department of Justice. We will bring community health centers from HHS. We will bring all of these pieces together to focus them on rebuilding these communities -- starting with home.

By bringing together resources from several agencies we can rebuild these communities -- starting with home. And we will look to all of you to be fundamental partners in these efforts.    

Supporting Home

I've talked about the importance of home to me personally, to our national economy, and to the families in communities with little opportunity. 

But you all know and are the best advocates for how each of HUD's programs plays a fundamental role in creating home.

From the very beginning of the cycle of homeownership you are there with us, because housing counselors play a critical role in helping families make smart, informed choices.

Whether it's the decision to buy or rent, improving financial literacy, protecting families' rights against discrimination, or even preventing homelessness -- those are the choices you help them make through counseling.

Your study on pre-purchase counseling showed that borrowers who received counseling were 33 percent less likely to become 90 days delinquent, despite the financial crisis, and even when controlling for selection bias. 

And a recent HUD study showed that 7-in-10 at-risk homeowners who worked with a housing counselor got the help they needed to keep their home.

That's why we're working with you to increase access to counseling.

It's why we've launched a new Office of Housing Counseling -- elevating its visibility and importance and working to integrate housing counseling into all of HUD's programs.

But we're also looking to you for continue support for some of our other efforts that strengthen the concept of home by building stronger communities. 

The HOME program is the largest federal block grant dedicated to affordable housing production and it is essential to strengthening the concept of home by ensuring that affordable homes are accessible to more people. 

In just over twenty years, 650 participating jurisdictions around the country have created over one million affordable units and provided rental assistance for an additional quarter million people. 

One of our most flexible tools, Community Development Block Grants create jobs, bring businesses to your cities, forge innovative partnerships around services, and help rebuild your economies.

CDBG is a centerpiece of our community development efforts -- we've seen the difference CDBG funds make and how the dollars they leverage build the economic infrastructure a community needs to thrive. It's also a vital tool for rebuilding after a disaster.

Programs like CDBG and HOME are necessary because they allow us to focus not just on what our communities look like today or even how they can be better in the next few years -- but our goals for the next few decades.

In this way, we are working together to use these programs to help define what home means for future generations.

Threats to Home

But all of these efforts to defend value of home are threatened by sequestration. While we are all working so hard to show why home matters -- to defend the investments we make in our homes -- we are seeing a significant impact that undermines these efforts.

Under sequestration about 125,000 individuals and families nationwide--more than half of whom are elderly and disabled--would lose assistance provided by the Housing Choice Voucher program.

Another 100,000 homeless and formerly homeless people--the majority of whom are families, disabled adults or veterans--will be removed from their current housing or emergency shelter programs.

If that weren't bad enough, sequestration will also likely to cause substantial damage to our nation's housing market at the precise time it is helping to lead our economic recovery. 

Sequestration will jeopardize FHA's ability to process loans when FHA represents a substantial portion of loan originations for the single family market as well as 25 percent of all new multifamily loans.

Cuts to housing counseling grants would result in 75,000 fewer households receiving vital foreclosure prevention, pre-purchase, rental or other counseling. This means fewer families making responsible, informed housing choices and greater risk to our housing recovery.

Personal Importance

After talking about the magnificent work we are doing together it is deeply frustrating to me, as I'm sure it is for all of you, to watch these cuts go into effect 

Rolling back hard won gains in troubled neighborhoods, threatening the ability of a family, or a veteran, or a disabled person to stay in their home is unconscionable. 

We have to reverse sequestration and put these misguided cuts behind us precisely because home is so important.

You can tell these stories -- you can show Congress why home matters and the difference that reversing sequestration will make. 

Let me give you one last example of what sequestration does.

We have now lost, as a result of sequestration, $2.5 billion from our Superstorm Sandy Recovery funds.  

The cuts to the CDBG program alone are $800 million. That means more than 10,000 families will not be able to rebuild their homes. 

I began my remarks today by talking about my own discovery of why home matters -- through seeing homeless folks as I walked to school every morning.

The most difficult moments I've experienced as HUD Secretary, and the ones that have most reminded me why home matters, are when I've traveled to places that have been hit by natural disasters.

There is nothing like meeting two sisters walking through the wreckage of their mother's neighborhood outside of Birmingham, Alabama, after it had been hit by a tornado.  They were trying to gather the scraps of their lives from the debris. They were literally unable to find a photograph of their childhoods, or their parents. 

That was a similar look on the faces of the families in the Rockaways and on the Jersey Shore after a hurricane and flooding stole their homes, their memories.

It is those moments -- of a family that has lost their home -- that you realize more than ever why home matters.  

It is when you see in the eyes of that family that everything they need to do -- to get their kids back in school, to get back to work, to start rebuilding their lives -- begins with having a place to sleep at night, to bring together all their worldly possessions and memories.

It's when you experience that -- and when you know that sequestration will stop that progress of rebuilding for more than 10,000 families -- that you know why home matters.

At that moment, home is everything.

That's the answer to why home matters.

Thank you for all that you do and for your remarkable partnership. I look forward to four more years of working together to show the world why home matters.

Thank you.


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