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When Eviction Moratorium Ends, HUD Secretary Says Aid Will 'Move A Lot Quicker'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When President Biden took office, at the top of the agenda was getting the coronavirus pandemic under control. But with millions of Americans now getting their vaccine shots and schools and businesses reopening, another crisis could be developing. We're talking about housing. The U.S. Census Bureau says nearly 7 million Americans are behind on rent, a situation that could become even more pressing after a federal judge ruled earlier this week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not have the authority to stop landlords from evicting people during a pandemic.

And even apart from that immediate challenge, in major metro areas and rural areas alike, millions of Americans are struggling to find affordable housing, a situation that could become even more pressing as housing markets that had cooled off amid stay-at-home orders rev up again. We're already seeing that in certain areas. All of this is in the portfolio of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, a former congresswoman from Ohio. And she is with us now.

Madam Secretary Fudge, thank you so much for joining us.

MARCIA FUDGE: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I want to start with the latest news. Your agency, along with the White House and the Treasury Department, has just announced that it's authorizing $21.6 billion for emergency rental assistance. Your agency's also issued new guidance on how that money should be spent. But I want to point out that Congress has already passed $45 billion in rental assistance, but there have been reports that states are still distributing it. I mean, CNBC reported that as of early April, some 20 states had not even opened programs to distribute the aid.

So recognizing that you just got your feet under the desk less than two months ago, what's going wrong here in your opinion? And how does your latest plan address this?

FUDGE: Let me say a few things. First, you're absolutely right. The resources have been slow getting out. Part of the problem was that as the resources came out so quickly - because as you talk about the COVID package, the rescue plan, you talk about CARES all coming out fairly close together, there was a lot of money going through the pipeline. And most of our communities, especially the smaller ones, did not have the capacity to use it as quickly as we would have liked.

So, yes, there were some logjams. But I do believe that now - that they have the kind of direction they need, the technical assistance from us as well as our people on the ground assisting them. You're going to see the money start to move a lot quicker because we know that the need is so great and that people are relying on the fact that we are going to use this $40 billion to make sure that we get people caught up on their arrearages, get them current so that when the moratorium ends June 30, we won't fall off the cliff.

MARTIN: You know, about that, I mean, the census says 7 million Americans are behind on rent. As you pointed out in your release, as many as 12 million Americans say they aren't sure they can make next month's rent. And as you just pointed out, the CDC issued this nationwide moratorium on evictions that runs out on June 30. A federal judge has said that that exceeds the CDC's authority. Now, that ruling has been stayed while the Department of Justice appeals it. Your agency's extended its own foreclosure and eviction moratorium for federally financed housing till June 30. But June 30's not that far away.

Do you think these measures will be enough to persuade landlords to extend some forbearance?

FUDGE: I do believe it's going to be enough because the one thing about it, landlords who rent to properties or people that are associated with HUD tend to have more stable incomes because they know they're going to get their rent from us. So I do think it's going to be good. And I also do think that the biggest problem, quite frankly, Michel, is that tenants don't know their own rights. And so we are trying to educate tenants on where to go.

The same thing is happening with homebuyers. Many of them do not know that they can go to their lender and renegotiate their loan if they need to. You know, we have tenant organizations, but this is the other thing, Michel, that a lot of people don't know. We have $20 million that we are using to assist people legally so that they don't have to fight these battles by themselves. So I think that we've done a really good job at trying to be helpful.

MARTIN: What do you think is the most important part of this package?

FUDGE: These are the most important things. One is there's $10 billion set aside in this plan, 5 billion for emergency vouchers to get homeless people off the street. You know, Michel, we did a report we called a point-in-time report, where we show that on any night in 2020, more than 580,000 people in this country were homeless. So we have to first try to make sure that we get them off the street. There's another $5 billion to assist communities in either building new housing, moving them into existing housing, using vouchers for multifamily housing, all the kinds of things we can do to get them into permanent housing.

MARTIN: So, you know, I want to talk about that because I want to sort of broaden out beyond the immediate crisis that we've been talking about. A lot of locales have made heroic efforts to address homelessness among families, among veterans and, you know, different groups. But it almost seems as if the problem keeps running faster than any solutions that people can come up with, you know? There's a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition on the gap between affordable housing and low-income renters. It says that no state has an adequate supply of affordable rental housing for the lowest-income renters. And is there something in this plan that addresses that when the market seems to be moving so quickly?

FUDGE: Oh, absolutely. And that's part of this $5 billion. So within this legislation, there are low-income housing tax credits that we can use to assist persons in building more affordable units. We have pretty much universal housing vouchers so that we can give people a voucher to go and live in communities that they'd like to live in. We also have expanded by about 70,000 our choice housing vouchers. So there's a lot here to be helpful. But the need is so great and it's so urgent that it's going to take time to do some of what we know needs to be done, unfortunately. And we're just kind of behind the eight ball on it.

MARTIN: And what about this question about - you know, gentrification is a political term, and some people think it's not really accurate. But what - do you have some initial thoughts about that as an issue? We're talking about the fact that - you know, we're seeing it play out where, you know, cities become hot, and existing homeowners or existing people who live there are pushed out or moved out. They can no longer afford to live there. Some people say, well, that's just the dynamism of living in a hot place, and other people say that there's a lot being lost with that and that, you know, the instability is unhelpful, that it creates sort of tensions.

And like I say it's a really rich issue. We're not going to resolve it here, but I am just curious about your initial thoughts about that, how you think about that.

FUDGE: Well, one of the things that I think about, Michel, is that a lot of it can be attributed to systemic racism within the system. When you have a system that says that - yeah, we'll sell our houses that have been foreclosed. But what happens is they sell them to investors because you have to - but they sell them in tranches, 50 or 60 at a time, you know? They do things that make it difficult for you or me or some low-income person to just go and buy a house on a street, you know?

The other thing we don't do, Michel, which makes it more difficult, is that FHA and most lenders do not want to loan you money for a house that costs less than $75,000. Those are the very houses that people are scooping up, rehabilitating and selling them for a million dollars. I am as concerned as anyone about gentrification in our communities.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, I just wanted to ask you more broadly about your priorities. Like, what's your North Star? I mean, it's been reported that this wasn't your first choice, that your first choice was agriculture. But now that you're there and now that you've taken this on, have you thought about what you want to accomplish? What's your North Star going to be?

FUDGE: Let me say yes, I am - I have come to very much love the work I do. My North Star is to make sure that people realize that we have a government and an administration that cares enough to make a difference. I listen to people every day, Michel, who believe that they are invisible, that we don't see them. They live in squalor, and they live in unsafe places. I want to make a difference.

MARTIN: That was Marcia Fudge. She's the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for talking to us. I do hope we'll talk again.

FUDGE: Absolutely will be my pleasure to. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.