Interview with HUD secretary

BISMARCK—The nation’s top housing official said Tuesday that he saw the depth of the housing struggles some families are enduring to keep their jobs in western North Dakota.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan spent time in Williston and Minot on Monday and Tuesday to hear about the housing challenges in oil country.

“It’s one thing to read about it. Seeing is believing,” he said. “Really seeing it for myself and seeing the challenges was critical.”

Donovan discussed his trip to North Dakota in a phone interview with Forum Communications.

Q. Of all the places in the country you could be, why did you decide to come to North Dakota?

A. The president asked me to come because the success of North Dakota is important, not just for the region. I was in Williston yesterday. I’m in Minot today. I met with mayors from a range of communities that have benefited from the oil boom here.

That’s important not just to those communities and their success, not just to North Dakota’s success, but to the nation’s success.

If we can’t make sure that there’s housing available in communities that are benefiting from the oil boom, we’re not going to be able to create jobs in this country. We’re not going to be able to have true energy independence and reduce our dependency on foreign oil, which is a key priority of the president.

He asked me to come because the success of this region is critical to the nation’s economy. And housing is a key part of making sure that this job growth can continue.

Have you been to North Dakota before?

I have not. I actually have traveled to 48, now 49, states in my life. When I get to South Dakota this afternoon, I will have visited all 50 states in the country.

I was invited specifically by Senator (Kent) Conrad and also spent time with Congressman (Earl) Pomeroy yesterday.

I would not have known that these challenges were so acute around housing if it hadn’t been for the advocacy of Senator Conrad and Congressman Pomeroy on behalf of North Dakota. They’ve been vocal about the importance of housing as part of the solution to ensure continued job growth.

What were your thoughts as you toured the area?

I’d say two things, somewhat contrasting, in fact.

One is that North Dakota should be proud of the success that I saw in Williston and so many communities. You see challenges of success and particularly when so many parts of the country are facing severe unemployment, the legacy of this terrible recession that the president inherited.

All of the challenges that we talked about really are a result of companies wanting to come here, of seeing a work ethic and a set of values in North Dakota that has really made the region a success.

And so while the challenges are very real, one of the things that really struck me yesterday is that these are challenges of success, and North Dakota ought to be proud of the success that it’s had.

On the other hand, those challenges are very real. When you see a family that’s willing to drive 1,000 miles, take a job in a community where they’re maybe even sleeping in a tent or living in a camper, that you know is going be bitterly cold (in winter), you really do see that housing is a critical part of the solution for these communities.

Talk about some of the testimony you heard and what people wanted from you.

This is the other thing that’s critical about coming. I was here to see for myself and understand the challenges but also to hear about local solutions.

The important role the federal government can play, and the president believes that our administration can play, is not to come in and say, “We have all the answers and the federal government is here to do this.”

Instead, what I heard yesterday from local government officials, from folks from the private sector, is we do have a private sector that’s ready to step in that can lead the development of new housing, new infrastructure that will help these communities grow and prosper.

But there is also hesitancy on that private sector, having seen a boom and bust cycle before in the oil industry, seeing the way that the balance sheets of many local community banks have been hurt by the recession that we’ve been through, even though it hasn’t affected North Dakota in the same way.

There is hesitancy for private developers and investors to come in and build at the scale necessary to really keep up with the growth.

Therefore, what we can do to be helpful is bring resources that can partner with the private sector to make sure that there is consistently long-term capital available for that growth.

We went and visited a 51-unit development called Waters Edge, a beautiful new apartment complex that’s being built in Williston. It wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the Recovery Act.

Another example is through the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA which is part of HUD. It was created by Congress right after the Depression to make sure housing capital, whether it’s for single-family homes or apartment housing, capital is available, loans are available in difficult times when the private sector retreats.

What are you going to report back to the president?

I’m going to report on the progress that we’ve already made. I’ve mentioned the Waters Edge and FHA.

I saw roofs being installed on public housing … housing being improved because of the Recovery Act incentives.

What I’ll also report to him on is what new things we’ll be able to do, what ideas I heard on other ways we could be helpful.

The other thing I heard very consistently is it isn’t just the actual capital or loans to build housing. It’s also the broader planning of what these communities will look like going forward.

One of the things I heard very consistently is, “We don’t want to make mistakes of the past.”

We drove by apartments put up very, very quickly, almost haphazardly, during the oil boom in the ‘80s. Many folks said to me, “This is what we don’t want to do.”

We want to make sure we’re building the right housing in the right kind of places. We want to make sure we’re developing a true community: the schools, the roads, the health care, all of the pieces necessary of a thriving community are accounted for and part of the development to happen.

That’s why the president has made a key focus providing the kind of planning dollars, particularly to small communities, that haven’t been available before.

That was something I heard very consistently is a key piece of what the federal government can provide.

And we can help connect all of the local leaders I met with yesterday to some of the best practices from around the country.

How quickly can the federal government provide help?

We are already doing that. The Recovery Act has been a critical source of financing. The planning money that I talked about, we will be awarding that funding this fall. That can be of assistance very quickly and, in FHA, we’re ready to provide assistance on loans whether it be single-family loans or multi-family.

What are some things that struck you personally as you toured the area?

I saw men living in tents across from the library where we met yesterday.

I saw campers with families making a desperate effort to try to insulate those campers and ensure that they stayed as warm as possible through the tough winters of North Dakota.

When I saw all of that in one day, it just really brings home the nature and the depth of the struggles some families are going through to be able to keep jobs here and provide for their families.

It made sure that I’m going to go back to Washington to work with Senator Conrad, to work with Congressman Pomeroy to make sure we do everything we can as a partner at the federal level to help those families have a decent roof over their heads (and they) are warm during the winter and make sure that they can provide for their families by keeping their jobs there.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m headed to South Dakota later today really to see in some ways the opposite end of the spectrum. There are unemployment rates of 75 percent or more on many Native American reservations. There, the housing challenges are extreme, but from a different point of view.

I’m really seeing both ends of the spectrum, if you will, in the Dakotas on this trip and making sure we’re meeting the broad range of needs for rural communities around the country.