Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the Rebuilding Together 2013 Conference

Washington, DC
Thursday, November 14, 2013

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Charley (Shimanski), for that kind introduction. And congratulations on becoming President and CEO earlier this year.

As you just showed with your remarks, you bring incredible passion and ideas to this position. And I wish you the best of luck in this new role.

I'd also like to thank your Chairman, Brad Segal; your National Affiliate Council Chair, Kathy Greiner; the Board Members, staff and volunteers; and all the affiliate leaders for the incredible work you are doing across this country.

It is an honor for me to join you as Rebuilding Together celebrates its 25th Anniversary. When I think of the great tradition of service your organization has established, I am reminded of the words of Emerson: "The only true gift is a portion of thyself."

Over the years, the people in this room have given communities the gifts of your time, your talent, your compassion and your commitment to helping neighbors in need. And I know that a large part of the Rebuilding Together family is doing this work as volunteers - including members of AmeriCorps.

Through your actions, it's clear that you are motivated not by pay, but by a desire to do good and help others. In doing so, you have helped generations of low-income families secure a more hopeful future.

This is work that I had the privilege of seeing up close a few years ago in New Orleans, when you brought together more than a thousand volunteers to rebuild fifty homes in five days.

I have been proud to do similar work on other projects in New Orleans with my wife and two sons, so I know how valuable your efforts are.

I commend all of you for the civic contributions you are making across the country, helping our nation recover from both natural disasters and economic disasters.

And all of us at HUD are proud to support you along the way, from awarding both CDBG and Healthy Homes Production grant funds to your organization, to assisting with your valuable conferences and events.

Through our actions and words, we are clearly big believers in your work and are grateful for all that you've done - especially as our nation fights its way back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Securing a Better Bargain for Americans

It's no secret that recent years have been tough on American families. When President Obama took office in 2009, the housing market was in free-fall.

Home prices had fallen nearly 20 percent from the year before: the largest one-year drop ever measured. Roughly three million borrowers were seriously delinquent.

Construction projects and plans came to a halt, causing the industry to lose 100,000 jobs a month. Across the board, we saw dramatic declines.

While all Americans felt this pain, low-income families were hit especially hard. The Federal Reserve released a study a few years ago which found that families in the bottom half of the income distribution were twice as likely to have a member of their household out of work than higher-income households.

I know I don't have to tell this audience what kind of impact losing a job has on the most vulnerable communities, whether it's draining retirement savings, the threat of foreclosure or putting off necessary home repairs.

Even worse, these families weren't doing that well before the crisis hit. For decades, it has been getting harder and harder to reach the middle class. As the President has said, we are in this trend of a "winner-take-all economy" where a few are doing better and better and everyone else is just treading water.

This is not the way it's supposed to be. America at its best is a place where you can make it if you try. Everybody deserves a fair shot to lift themselves up if they work hard and play by the rules.

That's why President Obama has made building ladders of opportunity a top priority. Even with all the distractions he has encountered in recent times, his commitment to this cause is unshakable.

And at the heart of this effort is securing a better bargain for the American people when it comes to housing.

Ensuring Families Can Protect Their Health and Build Their Wealth

What exactly does this mean? It means ensuring that all those who have achieved homeownership don't see their dreams turned into the nightmare of foreclosure.

This is something President Obama has been committed to from the very beginning. And since 2009, we've helped roughly 7 million homeowners get government or private mortgage modifications.

For those directly served by our Home Affordable Modification Program, his translates to savings of nearly $550 with each monthly payment, money that can go a long way for low-income families.

And in the hardest hit communities, our Neighborhood Stabilization Program has bolstered this recovery. Through this effort, $7 billion has been allocated to cities, states and non-profit organizations.

This includes Rebuilding Together New Orleans. And we've been proud to work with them-and other partners across the country-to refurbish the foreclosed and abandoned properties that often hold back communities trying to rebuild.

In more than 70% of these neighborhoods, vacancies are down and home prices are up compared to similar communities, which is a win for all the homeowners who remain and have made it through the tough times.

As a result of these and other effort, since the beginning of 2012, roughly $3.1 trillion in home equity has been restored. This is a good thing for low-income homeowners because they are a part of this comeback story, and I know we'll all keep working to ensure this momentum continues so families can rebuild their wealth.

But this alone isn't enough. As you know better than anyone, homeownership isn't just about wealth. It's also about health. It's about access to quality housing. And the sad truth is that quality housing isn't a reality for everyone.

It is estimated that over 30 million U.S. housing units have significant physical problems and/or elevated levels of contaminants. This is simply wrong.

No child should ever be in danger when brushing their teeth because of unsafe water. No person should ever have their health threatened while watching TV because of poor air in their home.

That's why it's critical that we, as a nation, do something about it. I know all of you are taking action by performing safety upgrades and beautification projects that have impacted people ranging from veterans to children.

HUD has been proud to partner with you to educate low-income homeowners on the dangers of contaminants like lead poisoning to create safer and healthier environments for families. This compliments the broader work of our Healthy Homes program, which has helped to reduce hazards from lead paint and other dangers in roughly 160,000 homes during my tenure.

And looking forward, we will continue to build on this progress in a variety of ways, including working with professionals to ensure their practices protect the health and well-being of residents, and launching a new website next Spring with federal partners that will offer homeowners with the tools they need to remove risks from their homes.

In these times of limited budgets, there are some who say we can't afford to use resources for these efforts. I say we can't afford not to. We can save our nation billions every year by addressing many of the health problems our homes cause ahead of time.

Doing so will lead to better housing and better health for families across the nation. And to compliment this work, we've got to ensure that people enroll in the Affordable Care Act through the exchanges and marketplaces.

I've been delivering this message across the country, and some wonder why the HUD Secretary is talking about health care. I know that no such questions are being asked here. That's because you know that health and housing are closely linked. The less the American people have to spend on medical costs, the more they'll have available for housing repairs or payments.

In addition, we all know that a sudden surge in medical costs can lead to families missing payments and losing their homes. So the Affordable Care Act is good for the communities we care about, and it's already making a difference in lives.

Because of the ACA, a person can now be on their parents plan until they are 26. Seniors can now save hundreds of dollars on prescription drugs because of deeper discounts. Families can now stop worrying about the lifetime limits that forced people to lose coverage in the past. In short, the American people are already benefiting from the ACA.

Of course, as we all know, no law is perfect. And as the President has said, he is willing to work with Democrats and Republicans to fix problems as they arise. That's why earlier today, he announced that insurers can offer consumers the option to renew their 2013 health plans in 2014.

This solution will allow people to keep their old plans, giving more consumers more information and choices. As this action demonstrates, the President continues to work to make the system better.

This of course includes fixing the website, which as we all know, has been a frustrating experience for many users. I'm upset about it. The President is very upset about it. And teams are working 24//7 to get it working at full capacity.

The good news is that the website is improving and will be fixed. The even better news is that, in the larger picture, families now have access to affordable health care. So let's continue to encourage low-income communities to enroll, whether it's through the website, the phones or in person.

Let's also urge all states to expand Medicaid coverage for their residents. As many of you know, the Affordable Care Act expanded the number of working families who would qualify for Medicaid. But it's up to states to decide for themselves whether to take this action.

This is a no-brainer. But, unfortunately, nearly half of U.S. states are too caught up in the politics of this issue to expand coverage for their own residents. For example, I was just in Florida, which would cover roughly 850,000 people who currently don't have health insurance, if it just took this very basic step.

In total, states refusing to expand Medicaid are leaving 5.4 million Americans uninsured. It's time for these states to stop putting political interests before the people's interests. It's time for all of us to stand up and speak out on this issue.

Doing so will save lives and money, and that's good for all Americans.

Giving Homeowners and Communities New Tools to Thrive

In addition to increasing access to quality care and improving the physical condition of homes, we've also got to give low-income homeowners and communities the supporting tools to thrive. One of these tools, and perhaps the most important, is information.

During times of tight budgets, every financial decision impacts a family's financial future. So HUD is working to give families the knowledge they need to make the best choices. That's why, in the last four years, HUD-approved housing counselors have worked with more than nine million families, both in the pre-purchase and post-purchase phases.

By giving homeowners and buyers access to reliable and unbiased information, they will make better decisions and the entire country will benefit. We're also working to help families learn the true costs of their community, specifically when it comes to housing and transportation.

For the vast majority of American families, housing and transportation represent their two most significant expenses. We all know that the costs of housing are easy to identify because the mortgage or rent bill comes every month.

But transportation expenses are a lot harder to see, and for too long, calculating these combined costs hasn't been as easy as it should be. Not anymore.

Earlier this week, HUD joined with the Department of Transportation to launch an effort we call the Location Affordability Portal. This easy-to-use web tool-which can be accessed through HUD's website-will allow people to determine the true costs of living in a neighborhood.

With this information in hand, users can now more accurately decide what neighborhoods are best for their own families - both for their lifestyle and their pocketbooks. This is especially useful for low-income households who simply don't have room for error so I ask you to spread the word about the Portal.

This tool will empower them with new knowledge so that they can make the best decisions for their futures. In the larger picture, the partnership that collaborated to create this tool demonstrates how the Obama Administration is working together like never before to give communities the support they need to thrive.

This is important because, even though I'm HUD Secretary, I know that no housing development can succeed on its own. Its residents also need access to good transportation options, quality health care, safe streets excellent schools and good jobs.

That's why President Obama has initiated a holistic approach to community development. As part of this work, he is launching something called Promise Zones. HUD is coming together with Health and Human Services, Justice, Education and other agencies to give the nation's hardest hit neighborhoods all the building blocks they need to prosper.

It's an exciting effort that will turn around entire communities. That's good for the homeowners living there. It's good for the surrounding neighborhoods and cities. And it's good for our entire nation. So I ask you to support this effort.

Preserving Access to Credit for Responsible Buyers

I also ask you to raise your voices as Housing Finance Reform is debated here in Washington. Together, we must make sure that affordability and opportunity are key pillars of the final product that emerges.

I know that all of you are focused on helping existing homeowners. But for the communities we serve, we've also got to ensure that the doors of opportunity are open for qualified families-from all income levels-today and into the future.

Over the next few months, Congress will decide if access to credit will be limited to the few or be available to the many. And as it considers the future of housing finance, we've got to keep the Federal Housing Administration as a cornerstone of homeownership.

That's because, as you all know, FHA has been critical to opening doors for low- and moderate income families. And during the housing crisis, it helped keep the dream of homeownership alive for families by providing much needed liquidity to the nation's mortgage finance markets.

In fact, economist Mark Zandi has said that if not for the FHA, "the housing market would have completely shut down." Of course, like nearly all mortgage market institutions, FHA sustained significant losses due to the distress in the housing market.

But the Obama administration recognized this early on, and took swift and effective action to protect the FHA and the American taxpayer alike. As a result, FHA is currently insuring the strongest loans in its history.

So again, I ask you to make your voices heard about the importance of this program, and the work we've done to secure its health far into the future so that it can continue to open the doors of homeownership to a wide-variety of qualified buyers.

Too many Americans had their dreams stolen by the housing crisis. Don't let Congress blame the victim and take away this ladder to opportunity.


Instead, we've got to build new ladders of opportunity so that every community has its fair chance to succeed. I know you are committed to this work. helping low-income homeowners protect their health and build their wealth.

We have been proud to work with you and compliment your efforts by helping families fight off foreclosure; ensuring that fewer families are in danger when in their homes; expanding access to quality, affordable health care; empowering people with the knowledge to make the best financial decisions; rebuilding entire communities with a holistic approach; and ensuring that the doors to homeownership remain open for low-income, qualified buyers.

These are goals I know we all share and are committed to. So l look forward to working with you over the next 25 years to help all communities rebuild together, work together, prosper together; and shape healthier and more secure futures together.

Thank you.


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