Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the 2014 National Healthy Homes Conference

Thursday, May 29, 2014
Nashville, TN

As prepared for delivery

Thank you very much, Matt (Ammon), for that kind introduction. More importantly thanks for all the great work that you and your team are doing at HUD's Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes.

Every day, you make tremendous contributions to our communities. And I am very grateful for your service.

I'd also like to thank Charley Shimanski and Rebuilding Together for being our partner in this effort. We share your belief that "everyone deserves to live in a safe and healthy home."

From the construction site to the conference hall, it's been an honor to work with you to move our country closer to this goal. And I deeply appreciate all your service.

I also want to give a special shout-out to our other conference partners HGTV, the DIY Network and the National Environmental Health Association. Your support has been incredible and we can't thank you enough.

Finally, I'd like to recognize, Mayor Dean - for his outstanding leadership and hospitality; Dr. Buchanan and the CDC; Beverly Banister and her colleagues at the EPA; and all of you in the audience for your great contributions.

It's truly a pleasure to be with you at this 2014 Healthy Homes Conference.

The Importance of Home

Each of us here this morning brings our own unique stories and experiences to this room. We represent different sectors, different regions and different generations. But something powerful has compelled all of us to put our personal lives on hold to be with each other today, and that is a shared belief in the importance of "home."

No matter who you are, or where you come from, "home" is sure to play a central role in your story. It's where we celebrate our wedding anniversaries, where our children take their first steps, where we gather our families and friends to celebrate the holidays.

In short, a home is more than bricks and mortar. It's where people build their lives. Unfortunately, for too many families across the country, "home" is also threatening their lives.

Data has shown that over 30 million housing units here the U.S. have significant physical problems, lead paint hazards, radon or other hazards. These conditions are causing asthma, other respiratory illnesses, lead poisoning and even cancer.

Even worse, there are families who have to accept this fate simply because they can't afford to move. Take Philadelphia, for example. Studies have shown that the two zip codes with the highest number of children living in poverty had asthma rates of 47 and 40 percent.

Similar outcomes are occurring across the country. And it is a tragedy that in 2014, millions of Americans are getting sick not because of how they live - but because of where they live. That's why it's so important that we've come together today to say with one voice that enough is enough.

Children shouldn't be in harm's way when watching cartoons in their living room. Families shouldn't be in danger when eating in their dining room. Poverty shouldn't sentence any person to a lifetime with health problems.

Instead. we've got to take action so that every household has a chance to thrive. One key to this work is to increase access to quality health coverage. That's what makes the Affordable Care Act such an important milestone for our nation.

By the end of the first enrollment period, more than 8 million Americans had signed up for private health coverage, in addition to the millions more who have benefited by the expansion of Medicaid and the ability to stay on their parents plans.

This means that families will save on medical costs, freeing up the resources they need to move into healthier communities. It also means more families will be able to get care if they do get sick in many cases, preventing an illness from getting worse.

So make no mistake: the Affordable Care Act is a game changer for all of us who care about health and housing. But as we all know, expanding coverage is just one part of the solution.

HUD's Work: Investing in Prevention

The other part is investing in prevention so hazards don't develop in the first place. The good news is that, as all of you have proven, we can do this and make a real difference in lives.

Certainly, I'm proud of all the work that HUD has done. Our Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes has always played a unique role in the federal government, providing funding that is focused on repairing homes to make them healthier and safer for families.

Since it launched in the early 1990's, working with partners, our lead hazard control grants have treated more than 180,000 units. This has helped reduce the number of children with lead poisoning by an incredible 75 percent over that time period.

Think about all the young people that have benefited from this work. Think about all the kids right now who are in the classroom instead of the emergency room. Clearly, these are common sense efforts that are enhancing the health of our communities.

But, it's also important to note that they make economic sense. Every dollar invested in preventing lead poisoning saves at least 17 in taxpayer dollars. So this work is benefiting both the common good and the bottom line.

We are making great progress, and HUD is committed to keeping the momentum going. Today, we are officially announcing that we are offering more than $90 million in grants to clean up lead based hazards. Communities can apply for these critical funds to enhance low-income housing units and protect the families living in them.

We are also providing another $12 million that can be used for additional healthy homes testing and mitigation work. With this effort, we are empowering local leaders with the resources they need to shape healthy communities.

We're also empowering them with new knowledge. In recent years, we've made a special effort to create a comprehensive and standardized way of assessing risks. We developed an initiative we call the "Healthy Home Rating System", which we adopted from Great Britain, designed to help people look at housing in a new way.

Using this system, people can learn about the effects of the defects and prioritize repairs. Since we launched it 2011, we have trained more than 5000 people, arming them with new knowledge to improve health outcomes in their communities.

With all our efforts, we are working tirelessly to make homes what they should b: a safe and sacred place to live. And I assure you that this commitment to better housing is not just a HUD cause: it's a cause that's shared across the Obama Administration.

The Administration's Commitment

Remember, the President got his start working in low-income communities on the South Side of Chicago. He saw firsthand how hazardous living conditions can harm families. That's why, from the start of his term, he has made improving housing options a top priority.

In May of 2009, Vice President Biden announced that HUD would be awarding nearly $100 million in Recovery Act dollars for this work, allowing us to help address health and safety hazards in tens of thousands of low-income homes. And the Administration's commitment has remained strong in the years since.

Case in point is the Federal Strategy to Advance Healthy Housing. Released in 2013, this effort aligns the work of several Federal agencies to pursue a shared strategy and achieve common goals.

Of course, I'm sure some of you are saying to yourself: "we've heard this before." And it's true that there are a number of important interagency efforts out there like the National Prevention Strategy, the Surgeon General's Call to Action to Promote Healthy Homes, the Federal Radon Action Plan and the Asthma Disparities Action Plan.

But, what's new about the Federal Strategy is that we have coordinated these different plans to maximize their strengths and effectiveness. And we've done so with five goals in mind.

The first is to establish a standard for healthy housing. Clearly we can't fully coordinate our work if we all don't agree on the target. That's why it's critical we develop a consensus on the basic requirements of healthy housing.

Thankfully, we are making important strides in this work. Two weeks ago, I was proud to participate in the release of the National Healthy Housing Standard with the American Public Health Association and the National Center for Healthy Housing.

The Standard strikes a strategic balance between feasibility and stringency. It provides flexibility with "stretch provisions" for owners and managers who have the interest and the means to go further.

And it is worded in a way that will be easy to understand for all stakeholders, allowing local jurisdictions who want to adopt some or all of its provisions to do so easily. I have committed to examining the Standard closely as it relates to HUD's operations, and I suggest you all do the same.

It will go a long way in determining a clear goal for all of us to focus on. And to achieve this goal, we must encourage the adoption of healthy housing principles for all participating agencies, partners and programs.

This is the second goal of the Federal Strategy. We want to ensure that all our efforts are driving towards the same cause: creating healthier housing environments. At HUD, we are committed to doing our part.

In partnership with the EPA, we have begun an effort requiring that radon testing be part of the environmental report for our multifamily assistance programs. This fiscal year alone, testing will cover 100,000 multifamily housing units. And when we find any with levels at or above the EPA action level, measures will be taken.

HUD is also encouraging our public housing agencies to proactively adopt smoke-free housing policies. An estimated 450 public housing authorities have already agreed, representing over 130,000 units.

These and other efforts are making a big difference for families across the nation. I know that other agency initiatives are doing the same. That's why we'll continue to push for the adoption of Healthy Housing principles, with all programs and partners, to give every family new hope for the future.

To complement this work, we've also got to give people the skills they need to make these principles a reality in their communities. The third goal of the Federal Strategy is to increase training and workforce development so that people can address the hazards in their housing. There are some out there who argue that in order to protect our environment we have to hurt our economy. That is a false choice.

There are incredible job opportunities in weatherization, retrofitting services and other fields in cutting-edge, new industries. We've got to give workers the tools they need to get those jobs.

That's why HUD is planning an initiative with the Department of Energy to provide public housing residents with the chance learn the STEM fields. We've got to make sure that energy investments in our housing stock are coupled with investments in the residents living there.

In doing so, we can boost the health and wealth of communities at the same time. And we look forward to partnering with you to make this happen.

In addition to providing workers with new education to compete in the workforce - we've also got to give families a basic education about the importance of healthy homes. I dare say that knowledge is the most important tool a person can have to deal with life's challenges.

The fourth goal of the strategy seeks to give them that knowledge. Federal agencies are developing an online resource that will give families access to the information they need to maintain and enhance the health of their homes.

In addition, we've are proud to be working with Rebuilding Together, HGTV and other partners to help spread our message. Knowledge is power. Together, we can raise awareness and help Americans help themselves.

And as Federal agencies, we also want to help ourselves. Specifically, in this tough budget environment, we want to ensure that we are using all our resources efficiently and effectively. That is the fifth and final goal: furthering research to make evidence-based decisions.

HUD and partners like the EPA, CDC and others have committed to supporting research that advances healthy-housing in a cost-effective manner. With this information in hand, we can make the moral case for our work.

We can make the economic case, as well, showing how poor housing causes our nation billions annually in preventable healthcare expenses. And at a time when so many families are literally living in danger, I can't think of a more important effort than the one that brings us together today.

So I ask for your help and support in realizing the goals of the strategy. And I ask that you continue to assist HUD in our mission of providing every family with access to quality housing.


We know that to solve these big challenges - we can't do this work alone. Nor do we want to. We deeply value all your contributions as academic, non-profit and private sector leaders. That's why this National Healthy Homes Conference is so important.

It gives all of us the chance to build on old partnerships and establish new ones. Again, together, with one voice, we must say that when it comes to hazards in housing: enough is enough.

Home should be a source of happiness and hope. Home should offer a safe and stable environment. Home should help, not hinder, a person's ability to thrive.

All families deserve a fair chance to live in healthy surroundings. Let's work together to give them that chance.

Thank you.


Content Archived: February 27, 2017