Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shutdown put strain on HUD staff when we need them more than ever

by Chris Estes, National Housing Conference

This post originally appeared as the Member Update from the President column in the October 22, 2013 edition of the Washington Wire. To receive the Wire in your inbox every week, become a member of NHC

The drama of the government shutdown and near-default has ended, but the after-effects will take a while to
sort out. A lot of attention is paid to those government positions where an immediate impact can be felt by the public or businesses: national parks, museums and monuments, customs and immigration, etc. But what about all the folks protecting our drinking water and food, or folks working on improving school curricula or getting transit projects through to approval so investment can begin?

I spent some time over the weekend talking with a friend who was one of the essential employees at HUD who worked through the shutdown. Trying to keep housing transactions moving forward with the current staff shortages was hard enough, but it became even more stressful with most of the building empty. My friend told me it really began to feel like "piling on" to an already beleaguered workforce. Not to mention the backlog of work they all faced when they got back to their desks.

In our world of housing, we often complain about HUD much more than we appreciate it. It is a big bureaucracy that has been ignored by some administrations and rarely embraced by any. It easy to take shots at (even by people who work there). Ultimately, though, we want and need talented people to come work at HUD, especially folks who had successful careers outside of Washington who will serve in a leadership role for the 4-8 years of a presidential administration. While HUD is still far from perfect, one of the things I have really enjoyed about coming to Washington has been getting to know many talented and motivated HUD employees, from the Secretary's office on down to field staff.

To endure continuous underfunding while trying to improve HUD's work is a daunting and draining effort. Yet their work is vital more than ever as developers, community organizations and local governments work to respond to the increasing need for quality affordable homes and community investment. Imagine on top of that difficult challenge having most of your co-workers sent home for several weeks because some in Congress cannot agree for political reasons, or see the value of what you do for our country. Remember, you've already experienced a cut in pay from sequestration-induced furloughs. Now imagine you are back at work after your three weeks of unscheduled leave. How many emails are there to respond to, how many projects are now behind? It would be a very difficult environment for sure.

We will all be working with HUD staff as they dig their way out of this. How we work with them can go a long way towards getting the kind of HUD we want versus one where everyone who can, leaves. More importantly, the value of what HUD does is part of our story and of the impact quality affordable housing has on a community. As we look towards another showdown in January and February of 2014, we must remember how damaging yet another round of cuts would be.

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