HUD’s Donovan Talks Cities, Housing & Homelessness With Jon Stewart

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan made his first appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last week to talk urban development and how to solve America’s crisis in housing and homelessness.

After a little Mets vs. Yankees smackdown, the two had a thoughtful conversation about federal policy, homelessness, and the effect of the recession on the working poor.

Though Donovan says that despite some recent progress on the economic front, 20% of American children still live in poverty. Even Stewart conceded he wasn’t comfortable making a joke about that.

But as we’ve written, Donovan said new stimulus dollars have been successful in beginning to curb the rise in homelessness.

“We used to say to someone who was living on the streets, substance abuse, alcohol, whatever it was, we used to say ‘look, get sober and then we’ll help you find a place to live,”’ Donovan said.  “Turns out that’s absolutely got it reversed.  What we do now, it’s called, housing first. You get someone in to housing and it’s remarkable. They start to take their medications if they are struggling with mental illness. They can get sober. That’s what’s really begun to change this fight.”

New federal dollars are helping people who become homeless find a place to live as quickly as possible by providing support for rent, utilities, or helping to resolve landlord disputes.

But Donovan also said that as we’ve begun to do better at solving chronic homelessness, the recession has presented a new and growing problem – the number of families— working people with jobs and children— who are now facing homelessness owing to foreclosure and a growing crisis in rental housing. Far too often, renters are evicted when their landlord goes into foreclosure.

This hidden side of the foreclosure crisis is beginning to receive some attention, and the stories of eviction, and families living under deteriorating conditions, are very disturbing.

Donovan said there are now “in the hundreds of thousands of children living on the streets.”

One mother of six Barbara interviewed a year ago thought she’d seen everything as a Katrina survivor, but more was to come.  After relocating to Chicago, she was lucky to find a well-kept, spacious four-bedroom apartment in Cicero.  Her landlord lived on the first floor of the three-flat.  One day out of the blue, the sheriff was knocking on her door with an eviction notice–the bank had foreclosed on the building. Her family was at the time squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment above her church.  Her teenaged daughter recently returned to Mississippi to ease the strain on the family

And according to this NPR story, in some parts of the country, banks and large investment companies that buy up foreclosed properties are failing to provide basic maintenance or even to keep buildings up to code. Tenants often have no one to call if something breaks, if they find the owner has not paid the heat or water bill, and are forced to live in substandard conditions.

One city attorney in Oakland told NPR the volume is overwhelming and “foreclosed properties are being bought and sold so quickly, it’s hard to know whom to hold responsible for what.”

And to make matters worse, according to a report released this week from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, low-income families are increasingly priced out of the rental market. The report found that for every 100 extremely low income families, there are only 30 affordable units available for rent nationwide. [For more on housing cost burdens see “Housing Affordability is a Growing Concern for Renters”].

Donovan said new mortgage settlement dollars, allowing owners to write down mortgages, will help renters living in homes that have been foreclosed on. He says the settlement dollars have saved 1.2 million people from becoming homeless. But many argue that’s not enough. The National Low Income Housing coalition is calling on congress to fund the National Housing Trust Fund which was signed into law in 2008. If funded it will provide needed dollars to communities to build, preserve and rehabilitate affordable rental homes for low income households.

Here’s the first part of Donovan and Stewart’s discussion.You can watch the second part here.

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