Between the collapse of Build Back Better, the end of the federal eviction moratorium, and the record-setting inflationary rises in rents and home prices, it’s been a bruising year in America for the housing crisis.
Last month, however, brought some rare good news: Julia Gordon, former president of the affordable homeownership advocacy group National Community Stabilization Trust (NCST), was confirmed by the Senate to serve as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Federal Housing Commissioner. Her confirmation filled a high-profile housing policy vacancy that has dogged the Biden administration for nearly a year. In her new job, Gordon will run HUD’s Office of Housing (also known as the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA) and will oversee a $1.3 trillion portfolio of mortgage insurance, housing counseling, and multifamily assisted housing programs that serve over eight million people.
Gordon is an excellent choice for the position. In her past work in the non-profit sector, she fought against predatory mortgages and foreclosures, supported reductions in mortgage premiums, and pushed for greater support from Fannie Mae for non-profit involvement in the mortgage market as a counterbalance to Wall Street banks. Gordon has also worked on housing policy for the federal government before, serving as the Single-Family Policy Manager for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)’s Office of Housing from 2011 to 2012. Gordon’s nomination was praised by over 80 consumer, civil rights, and housing public interest groups, including the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the California Reinvestment Coalition, and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
She’s also made the right enemies. GOP Senator Pat Toomey, a corporate lapdog and former Wall Street banker, strongly opposed Gordon’s nomination on the grounds that she was too mean on Twitter to Republicans and the police (read Toomey’s embarrassing screed against Gordon, which never once mentions housing policy, for yourself). Since last August, Toomey and his fellow Senate Republicans have attempted to derail Gordon’s nomination by feigning outrage over her past tweets, turning a typically uncontroversial sub-Cabinet confirmation process into the latest culture war battleground. This strategy, which the GOP also used against progressive Biden nominees like Alvaro Bedoya and Gigi Sohn, has allowed Republicans to deflect public attention away from the real reason they oppose Gordon and others: if Biden’s nominees are confirmed, they might actually protect renters and aspiring homeowners by regulating the predatory real estate, private equity, and financial services companies whose donations line the GOP’s campaign coffers.
Also confirmed by the Senate last month was FHFA Director Sandra Thompson, who previously served as acting head of the agency after Biden fired Trump-holdover Mark Calabria in early 2021. Thompson, as I’ve written on this blog previously, is poised to oversee an enormous portfolio of housing finance policies and projects as full-time FHFA chief. Among her top priorities will be directing government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) resources to traditionally underserved mortgage markets (such as manufactured and rural housing) and closing the homeownership gap in minority and low-income communities.
While these two confirmations offer some hope of more robust executive leadership on housing in Washington, they also highlight how delays by both the Senate and Biden himself are undermining the administration’s ability to tackle the housing crisis. Gordon’s confirmation, from her initial nomination in June 2021 to the final Senate vote in May 2022, took a whopping 11 months to achieve thanks to unified opposition from Republican Banking Committee members. Although the FHFA vacancy took a comparatively shorter five months to fill (official nomination made in December 2021, final Senate vote in May 2022), it took Biden an additional six months after Calabria’s ousting last June to even nominate Thompson for the full-time gig. Compare these drawn-out confirmations to earlier nominations in the Biden era, when the administration clearly cared about quickly filling vacancies: HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, HUD Deputy Secretary Adrianne Todman, and HUD General Counsel Damon Smith were all confirmed within three months of being nominated by Biden last year.
Unfortunately, Gordon and Thompson are not the only examples of delayed housing nominees. Elizabeth De Leon Bhargava, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Administration, was nominated by Biden in October 2021 and only confirmed by the Senate last month — a total confirmation window of seven months. Dave Uejio, Biden’s nominee for Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, is still awaiting a Senate floor vote as of this writing — one year after being nominated for the position. Solomon Greene, who Biden has nominated to be HUD Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research, has been waiting even longer for a floor vote: Greene’s nomination was made in April 2021, a total confirmation window of 14 months and counting!
In the case of these latter two stalled nominations, Senate Republicans led by Toomey have voiced the same dishonest objections they deployed against Gordon, claiming that Uejio and Greene are unfit to serve at HUD because they have (accurately) criticized the American criminal justice system for being biased against racial minorities. Accordingly, this strategy has allowed Republicans to avoid taking unpopular public stances against Uejio and Greene’s justice–focused housing work. The Biden administration’s reluctance to publicly condemn this disingenuous blockade by Senate Republicans against its own nominees is disheartening, but not particularly surprising. Biden himself has gone to embarrassing lengths to pledge his support to overfunded police departments and condemn progressive criminal justice reform advocates.
Elsewhere, the Biden administration’s disinterest in expediting sub-Cabinet nominations has left crucial HUD positions without nominees at all. The position of HUD Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development, a powerful role that administers the department’s housing development and homeless assistance grant programs, has been without a nominee since January after Biden declined to re-submit his nomination of Mark Colon for the position. Colon, a former New York housing official who oversaw post-Hurricane Sandy housing relief efforts in the state, was initially nominated for the HUD position in April 2021 and attacked by both Toomey and North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis over his anti-Republican tweets.
Another HUD pick, Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing nominee James Arthur Jemison, withdrew his nomination this April to take a job as city planning chief for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. The Banking Committee twice deadlocked on Jemison’s nomination before he withdrew, seven months after first being nominated for the position. Toomey publicly whined that Jemison, who would have overseen HUD’s public housing and voucher programs in his role, would not condemn expanded support for the New York City Housing Authority in the House’s Build Back Better bill (for more on why Toomey’s arguments against NYCHA are privatization-friendly nonsense, check out this Jacobin piece).
A third HUD position, Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations, has been without a Biden nominee at all during the President’s time in office — a baffling decision considering the administration’s public insistence that Congress quickly take up its housing crisis policy response recommendations.
While there is little that Biden can do on his own to get his stalled HUD nominees out of committee gridlock (short of using the bully pulpit to blast Toomey or directing his administration to aggressively lobby the Banking Committee to confirm delayed HUD nominees), there are some things Democrats can do today to reduce the total delay time on his nominees.
First, Senate Democrats should change arcane floor time rules for executive branch nominees, which regularly allow partisan obstructionists like Tom Cotton to drag out confirmation votes for several weeks or months. As my colleague Eleanor Eagan wrote last February, Senate floor debates on nominees are “most often a waste of time that rarely changes the final outcome and serves merely to slow the process […] ‘Debate’ in reality, means Senators speaking into an empty chamber in turn and maybe not even about the question at hand.” If Senate Democrats had chosen to reduce floor time debate this Congress (as Senate Republicans did in 2019), it likely would have reduced final-stretch delays between committee and floor votes for nominees like Gordon (reported out of Committee in April, confirmed by the Senate in May) and Bhargava (reported out in January, confirmed in May).
Second, Biden must immediately move to name nominees for the three HUD positions that currently lack a nominee. Should Uejio or Greene unexpectedly withdraw from their nominations, Biden must be prepared with back-up nominees for their positions as well. With the midterm elections on the horizon, the window of opportunity to confirm sub-Cabinet nominees is rapidly closing. At this point in Biden’s presidency, a delay of a week or even a few days in naming a nominee to a vacant position could make all the difference.