Long before a global pandemic pushed even more households to the brink, data collected in January 2019 showed that as many as half a million people were unsheltered on any given night. Public housing is and has been suffering from a multibillion-dollar deficit, a chronic underfunding that has left millions of people in deplorable living conditions. As the number of renters increased after the 2007–2009 financial crisis, affordability has steadily plummeted. In 2017, almost half of all renters were handing more than 30 percent of their income to the landlord. For extremely low-income households, the rent burden neared 50 percent. Meanwhile, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1968’s recent golden anniversary, segregation and discrimination continue to plague housing.
The guarantee of safe and affordable housing is too important for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to continue being treated as the short straw by incoming White House administrations.
Despite HUD’s great potential in addressing America’s cycle of housing crises, recent administrations have failed to dignify it with leadership experienced enough to hit the ground running. The resumes of the Cabinet picks speak volumes. When they are thin on housing experience, one can often presume a grooming for “higher” office. Andrew Cuomo, HUD secretary under Bill Clinton, for the eventual job of governing New York. His successor Mel Martinez, under George W. Bush, for one of Florida’s Senate seats. Julián Castro, it was rumored, for vice president to former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. For the young and ambitious man, HUD can be a low-stakes stepping stool.
Other resumes tell the story of a White House indebted to its pick, though not so much as to hand them the job they really covet. The latter might explain how Dr. Ben Carson, an accomplished medical surgeon with no background in housing finance, found himself at the helm of HUD under Donald Trump. Two years into the job, Carson was still confusing REOs — short for real estate owned properties — with the chocolate sandwich cookie in a very public congressional hearing. A predictable outcome when an agency’s mission is an afterthought of the administration. In line with this tradition, the Biden-Harris camp announced on December 8 that it was tapping Rep. Marcia Fudge for secretary of HUD.
A cursory glance at the Ohio Democrat’s career makes clear that she has never led a public housing authority or developed an affordable housing complex. She did serve as mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, but she is not a trained urban planner or former advocate for indigent clients. She has neither represented tenants in housing court nor investigated the banks that fueled the foreclosure crisis. Nor has she managed a shelter for the unhoused, administered disaster relief grants, taught the complex scheme that governs federal housing on Native American land, or published research on housing market conditions. She does not appear to have ever filed suit to enforce the civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in housing, though she did once work for a county prosecutor.
Fudge’s tenure in Congress reveals no interest in the housing universe. Since her first election to the House of Representatives in 2008, the Ohio Democrat has sat on three House committees: Education and Labor, House Administration (which does not work on housing), and, most recently, Agriculture, on which she chairs a subcommittee. Though a subcommittee on housing, community development, and insurance exists, this congresswoman has never served on it.
Fudge’s tenure in Congress reveals no interest in the housing universe.
This does not mean Fudge is incapable of grasping the breadth of HUD’s mission, surrounding herself with knowledgeable advisers, and getting down to work quickly. But it does suggest that she will initially do so without familiarity with the field’s long-standing debates, the stakeholders in any given rule-making, or the experts across the political spectrum, including those who operate off the Democratic Party’s Rolodex.
Beyond her utter lack of connection to the post offered, Fudge has made choices that warrant serious evaluation of her suitability for this particular job. In 2018, Fudge refused to support the Equality Act, which sought to explicitly prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people in a number of areas, such as on public premises and in housing. The congresswoman first argued that she would vote for these same protections if they were in a stand-alone bill, rather than in the format presented to her. Defending her decision on Twitter, Fudge stated, “What I opposed was including the Equality Act in the current Civil Rights Act.” In May 2019, however, she voted with her party to pass the Equality Act. But after four years of a HUD administration openly hostile to LGBTQ people, a period during which Secretary Carson ridiculed transgender people and proposed a rule to permit their exclusion from shelters, Fudge’s initial hesitation toward the Equality Act is discomforting and her explanation unsatisfying. After all, it is not uncommon for the discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity to overlap with categories of discrimination already covered by the existing Civil Rights Act.
And, journalist Jamil Smith reported in Rolling Stone, five years ago, Fudge went out of her way to write to the Cuyahoga County prosecutor in support for Lance Mason, a former legislator and county judge in her state. At the time, Mason was serving a two-year sentence for brutally beating his wife. In 2018, having been released early, Mason stood accused of fatally stabbing her.
In her letter, Fudge had described Mason as a kind man and loyal friend. (Her letter became public as Fudge was being floated as an alternative to Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker last Congress.) The representative’s compassion was laudable for its exception; hers was a kindness rarely shown to people convicted of violent crimes. That could matter for recipients of housing assistance. Under the Obama administration, HUD prodded public housing authorities to open units to people with criminal records.
At the same time, by calling the beating a “very bad mistake” while insisting that her friend’s actions were “out of character,” Fudge displayed a naivete about the patterns that often characterize intimate violence. It also obscured the gravity of the assault, which counted severe punching, choking, biting, and head-slamming. Intimate violence is a major driver of housing insecurity. This is part of why HUD housing programs provide important protections and rights to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It is imperative that any incoming secretary of HUD understand this and take the implications seriously. Their leadership in such matters could be, for many, a question of life and death. Why should the post go to Fudge when so many qualified other advocates can finally give HUD constituents the champion they deserve?
None of this implies that Fudge, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is not invested in the very vulnerable populations that HUD stands to help most. On the contrary, Fudge has leveraged her position on the Nutrition Subcommittee to advocate for maximizing the Department of Agriculture’s role in combating hunger. Two weeks after winning her seat a sixth time, Fudge was pushing for a 15 percent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits through the next coronavirus relief bill. And just a year ago, she was fiercely opposing the Department of Agriculture’s proposal to cut billions of dollars from SNAP and drop 700,000 recipients from its benefits rolls. “The truth is the USDA is an agriculture and food agency, not a workforce agency,” Fudge wrote in a Washington Post opinion. “The president has cynically weaponized the USDA as a blunt political instrument, flying in the face of the department’s stated mission to ‘do right and feed everyone.’”
As the odds of a Biden-Harris victory quickly rose after the election, the Congressional Black Caucus and progressive organizations like Feeding America and the NAACP began to call for Fudge’s nomination to the Department of Agriculture. The organizations’ recommendation letters highlighted the historic nature of a Fudge appointment, who would be the first Black woman to lead the agency. But they also cited her politics: a commitment and track record of recognizing the Department of Agriculture’s power to alleviate poverty. Implicit in those endorsements was an assumption that Fudge had the substantive experience to enter the job with a vision for her tenure, rather than waste months, or even years, wrapping her head around the agency’s dominion. Fudge herself became less coy about desiring the job. As she told Politico in November, “I think it’s a natural fit.” Despite this push, the post is going to Tom Vilsack, who held it from 2009 to 2017.
Fudge’s appointment is still being framed as historic and, certainly, it is. The long list of HUD secretaries is overwhelmingly male; the Ohio representative would be the first Black woman to grace the top since Patricia Roberts Harris in 1977. But the progress feels shallow. Black and brown faces are being crudely shifted across a limited number of Cabinet spots to fulfill the primary goal: the ability to boast, as President-elect Joe Biden has begun to, “the most diverse Cabinet anyone in American history has ever announced.”
It is hard to argue against this. There is something seductive about building a government reflective of its population. A leadership made up of fewer wealthy, white, heterosexual men is attractive. But racial, ethnic, and gender diversity for its own sake is a harmful way to govern. It permits the executive to absolve itself of the policy determinations baked into its Cabinet picks. Rather than expand the search to diverse people with the right blend of qualification, passion, and, crucially, politics, Biden’s transition team is limiting itself to a closed pool of party loyalists with the right faces, and will deem the mission accomplished once it has distributed the optimal number of positions among those coming for their seat at the table.
Some see things in a more positive light. Jennifer Stewart, a Democratic lobbyist close to Fudge, disagreed that HUD secretary was a consolation prize for agriculture secretary, adding that it positioned her strongly to do an immense amount of good for marginalized communities. She told The Intercept that Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip from South Carolina, wanted Fudge to be considered for an appointment. “Marcia didn’t personally lobby for anything,” said Stewart. “Clyburn thinks highly of Marcia and you know he wanted her voice to be part of the conversation. She was just willing to do whatever it was.”
But the indignity of this cynical game isn’t always lost on its participants, and that includes Fudge. Just last month, she was telling Politico, “We’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in. You know, it’s always ‘we want to put a Black person in labor or HUD.’” In other words, enough with the tokenism.
Yet this is where we find ourselves once more as an unenthused congresswoman gracefully accepts the consolation prize of being the first Black woman to lead a department whose mission she might have to research before her nomination hearing. A disappointing outcome, to be sure. Then again, is this not what the Biden-Harris camp promised us all along: a return to normal?
Correction: Dec. 10, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Marcia Fudge would be the first Black woman to serve as HUD secretary. She would be the second, after Patricia Roberts Harris — not Robert Harris, as the story previously stated. It has also been updated to clarify that she is the chair of a subcommittee of Agriculture, not the chair of Agriculture.