President-elect Joe Biden has reportedly selected Ohio Representative Marcia L. Fudge to join his cabinet as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that will have a huge role in addressing the major housing challenges facing the incoming administration. If confirmed by the Senate, she’ll head up efforts to reduce housing discrimination, improve access to affordable housing, and restore fair housing rules that were scuttled by President Donald Trump. But before she does all that, she’ll have a housing disaster to avert.
The stakes of the HUD job are especially high right now, as the pandemic has led to a nationwide economic collapse that has put millions of renters and homeowners at risk of losing their homes. As job losses mount and millions of Americans fall behind on rent payments, the Centers for Disease Control instituted a federal ban on evictions in September to prevent housing instability that would be detrimental to public health control measures during the pandemic. Loss of stable housing would limit people’s ability to quarantine in case of potential exposure, and could end up pushing more people to the close quarters of emergency and homeless shelters that have been found to greatly increase risk of contracting COVID-19. The eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of the year, putting more than six million households at risk of eviction before Biden officially takes office January 20.
These problems aren’t likely to go away quickly. Though Biden has pledged 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, the pandemic’s economic impacts will reverberate long after the pandemic is brought under control. The pandemic could slash $2.5 trillion from the gross domestic product and 19 million full time jobs, according to a study from Texas A&M University. Some industries, like fashion and retail, could see their revenues drop nearly 30% compared to the year before.
According to recent research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, roughly one in six Americans are falling behind on rent, and the picture is even worse for renters with children, of whom almost a quarter are not caught up. These challenges are hitting communities of color especially hard, with 49% of Black adults and 47% of Latino adults reporting challenges affording household expenses. These vulnerable populations could be part of a flood of needy households dependent on the housing subsidies and protections controlled by HUD.
The challenges of low- and middle-income households are well known to Fudge, who was elected to Congress in 2008 and represents a majority-minority district that includes parts of Cleveland and Akron, a region that has had a long and slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. A member of the House Agriculture Committee, Fudge was recently thought to be a frontrunner for the secretary of agriculture cabinet post, which instead was given to former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who served as agriculture secretary in the Obama Administration. Fudge serves as chair of a congressional subcommittee on nutrition, oversight, and agriculture department operations, and has recently been a vocal advocate for expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. She has a long history of supporting child nutrition programs in schools and education more broadly. As a lawmaker, she has sponsored legislation ranging from subsidized employment programs for youth to emergency extension of SNAP benefits during the pandemic.
Fudge is a former mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, a town of13,000 just outside Cleveland, with a population that’s about 90% Black. She served for eight years and was the city’s first woman mayor and second Black mayor. A 2006 article in Cleveland Magazine profile touted her efforts to lure jobs and development back to a town that was “overshadowed by better-known suburbs, such as Beachwood and Shaker Heights.” In addition to her time in Congress, her two terms in local government may be the kind of on-the-ground experience needed at HUD, which for the last four years has been run by Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon and long-shot presidential candidate with no previous experience in government.
Fudge’s selection is somewhat surprising to watchers, as she was not a part of Biden’s HUD transition team, which included officials from groups like the Urban Institute, Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, and the National Community Stabilization Trust. On Tuesday, when word of her selection was first floated, Fudge told the Associated Press that, “It is something in probably my wildest dreams I would have never thought about… So if I can help this president in any way possible, I am more than happy to do it.” Earlier in the day, she’d posted on her Twitter account about the December 31 end of the eviction moratorium and federal unemployment assistance, calling on her colleagues in Congress to act. “This cannot wait any longer—time is running out,” she wrote.
It may soon be partly up to Fudge to figure out what else the federal government can do to stave off disaster. She and the rest of Biden’s new administration will need to get started on day one.