January/February 1997

An Interview with Helen Dunlap

In September, Helen Dunlap was appointed president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. She most recently served as HUD's deputy assistant secretary for operations and before that as deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing programs. Prior to her HUD service, she was also founding CEO of the California Housing Partnership Corporation, the mission of which was to preserve affordable housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income households. This  interview  took place on Nov. 11.

By Chester Hartman

Chester Hartman: First, on behalf of Shelterforce, let me welcome you. And as a board member of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, I also want to say how pleased we are to have you on board. In the Coalition's October Memo to Members you say, "After three-and-a-half years of working at HUD, I come to the Coalition humbler, wiser and with renewed vigor. My role at the Coalition is different from my role at HUD." Can we, as the current lingo goes, deconstruct that statement, starting with what you mean by "humbler"?

Helen Dunlap: When I came to the Department, I had a perception that simply through energy, commitment to mission, and hard work I could solve problems. I now have a much a clearer understanding that it takes more than hard work and energy to solve some of the problems in this town.

CH: You also say you're wiser now. What does that mean?

HD: With humility comes wisdom.

CH: And what's the renewed vigor you have?

HD: A sense that from this perspective and with a viable coalition it is possible to force the larger community to engage in more constructive ways to address the future demands, rather than just figuring out how to move the nickels and dimes around that now exist on the table.

CH: In what ways is your role at the Coalition different from your role at HUD?

HD: When you work inside a large bureaucracy – and I use that word without intent to send a positive or negative message – you are responsible for direction that comes from a set of rules and regulations, as well as the human element. And as a Deputy Secretary, particularly for a part of the Department that historically has a great deal of difficulty – disinvestment, financial troubles and so forth – I believe my responsibility was to improve the condition of that stock and improve the use of those resources. But outside in the larger world you don't have to accept the fact that the tools you are given are the only tools.

Over the next several years, it is absolutely vital that we improve the perception in this country of housing and its importance to a strong economy and a vital, healthy community, both at the local and national level. That means a much clearer voice for housing and more resources; more financial resources, more people resources than those I worked with in the Department.

CH: A recent New York Times Magazine cover story by Jason deParle summed up the sad state of U.S. housing policy in its title: "The Year That Housing Died." What can you and the Coalition do to bring it back to life, to make people believe that housing is just as important as, perhaps even more important than, education, job development, health, crime prevention and the other issues that have been on the front political burner?

HD: I don't know all the answers. One of the things I hope the Coalition can do in the next year is work with our colleagues to define better the answer to that question. Because I think if any of us knew the answer, we would have done it already. At the same time, I do think there are some specific things we can start working on. The Coalition has received money from the Surdna Foundation for what is titled a Media Advocacy Project. My perspective is that the Media Advocacy Project is really an exploration of the perception of housing by the average American. While painting an incredible picture of need, Jason left none of us with a sense that there wasn't an answer somewhere if we worked at it. The Media Advocacy Project is one tool by which we can work hard at defining a set of images, an image that creates a perception on the part of the person who is making decisions that housing is a fulcrum, a key, an anchor to a larger healthy community.

I hope over the next 18 months the Coalition will be more of a network for the organizations that are committed to a forum for how we link housing to that list of things you mentioned – crime, education, and so forth. Another piece of it, the one that's most difficult for me, is that for the moment we're a small group of people inside one wedge of a pie. And Jason's article was about the whole pie. We're all stuck in this wedge over here called public housing, assisted housing, federally sponsored programs, fighting with each other over a sliver of that pie. We need to do a better job inside that piece of pie recognizing what we can and can't accomplish, rather than wasting our energy shooting each other or fighting over limited dollars.

CH: How about at the local and state levels? What should housing advocates be doing to get housing back as a priority issue there? What should we do differently?

HD: I'm going to answer that question by sharing a great story that I read on my e-mail the other day. One answer, by the way, is getting everyone accessible by e-mail to everybody else, because it's such an incredible way for us to share with each other what's happening and to discuss issues. There was an article [sent to my e-mail address] by Andy Reid, who's in charge of the Spokane Housing Coalition. [The article recounted how] as an election event, he invited the people who were running for local and state offices for either breakfast or lunch. Before eating, he gave them a test that had some really basic questions about housing and poverty. Everybody flunked the test. The article goes on to say that he fed them anyway, but he used this as an educational opportunity.

We have a renewed educational process to go through, and that's why Jason's article was so helpful, as well as all of the other articles in the last few months, which have demonstrated that the condition of our stock in this country has deteriorated (having nothing to do with "public and assisted housing"). Clearly, the wage differential in many markets between what one can rent or buy and what one can afford is critical.

Welfare Reform

CH: What do you see as the principal housing impact of the recently passed welfare reform legislation?

HD: That's a tough question.There seem to be so many [possible effects] that I'm not sure which one I would define as the most important. What we're doing is increasing the gap between what it costs and what people have available. In general, it forces us as housing advocates as quickly as possible to get to the table the folks interested in a larger set of community issues. And, if you really want to look for the silver lining, it gives us an opportunity to engage in a whole look at families and their economic needs again. But if you look at that same continuum, since we don't have the answers yet and we already have the repeal of welfare, it leaves more people making the choice between housing and food, health care, or other basic needs. It leaves more housing producers, whether they be public or private, without the dollars to pay for operating expenses or forced to evict tenants.

CH: Two-thirds of American households own their home, and most of them are middle-class and live in the suburbs. How do we get these people to care about our agenda? How do we broaden our constituency to include these folks?

HD: That's the same question you asked a moment ago in a different way: how do we get the community and the government to reinvest? The community is largely the two-thirds of Americans who are homeowners. We get them to invest by getting them to recognize that they're paying the bill for the current disinvestment in the American city. I don't want to discount social justice as an avenue. I don't want to discount organizing as an avenue in the old-fashioned way. However, many of those households have an income of $30,000-$50,000, and their taxes, from their perspective, are out of reach, just as housing is out of reach for 5.3 million American households.

They're not going to want to see more of their tax dollars spent on housing unless they see there is some value to it. They need to see the consequence to them of not spending those dollars – and that ranges from environmental pollution to urban sprawl, to an understanding that disinvesting in Anacostia or any bad neighborhood in America guarantees urban sprawl – helping them understand that as long as we're a society of mercy and not of solutions, they pay three and four times as much at the other end for the disinvestment we call mercy.

CH: For years, we've been forced to fight defensive battles: saving HUD, saving public housing and the Brooke Amendment, saving the expiring use stock, limiting cuts in HUD's budget, protecting CRA and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. How do we go on the offensive with a more pro-active stance?

HD: We define the agenda as larger than those issues. What we're doing is defending old tools, which, in their moment and in their time, were very viable and useful approaches to meeting the country's housing needs. Many of them remain so, but not in the eyes of the constituents you asked about before. The other thing we do is that we start speaking positively of the successes. I was reading Government magazine about this great development in Fremont, California, where there is an educational scholarship program for the tenants funded by rents. The city insisted that the owner be actively involved in the education of the residents. We must identify those successes and start promoting them, as well as looking at what messages we send to the American public about housing. We must change those messages to something that enables them to see its value to people.

Legislative Agenda

CH: The November 5 election results, at least with respect to Congress, were not exactly a pleasant outcome for housing advocates. The 105th Congress might be even more hostile to housing issues and effective in damaging existing efforts than was the 104th. What are your ideas about a specific legislative agenda to push with the new Congress?

HD: Let me divide the answer to your question into three different groups. I think that we – not I, but my friends who read Shelterforce – were very successful last year in insuring that there were no changes in public housing until they were all thought through. I think people are ready to think them through. We need to be willing to be constructive and recognize that solving the problems can be done through changes in policy or changes in funding.

So the number one issue is to find a way to sit down and address public housing before the second and third waves of changes in assisted housing and for-profit, unsubsidized housing are front and center. This needs to be done in the context of recognizing that a healthy affordable housing stock represents the most important resource for very, very low-income people and that the concept of increasing the income mix is a useful community strategy, but it needs to be done in a way that doesn't jeopardize availability of very low-income housing. Whether that means that we insist on more incremental Section 8 subsidies to go along with the income mixing of public housing or other things is something the housing community is going to have to discuss immediately.

On the appropriations side, we have two immediate doubts. One is that the budget authority for the Section 8 program leaps by $6 billion in 1998. As a community, we need to better understand what I'm describing. The Coalition is going to be about the business of helping people understand the literal budget rules so we can help Congress understand that increasing that budget authority for Section 8 is vital, despite the budget rules.

Secondly, from having sat inside the Department, I know we are living with at least a nominal cap on expenditures, or real dollars spent. And my experience is that a nominal cap on outlays creates a situation where we're fighting amongst each other for vouchers, stock preservation, and public housing operating subsidies.

The third bout we're going to be fighting this year is the future of HUD. There is a temptation on the part of everybody to use the Department as a whipping post, to make nasty remarks about HUD, and to blame the Department for the complexity of housing programs as they have developed historically. We're in danger of not having a delivery system for those resources that remain.

That's a lot for one year's agenda.

CH: The Coalition for years, mainly through Cushing Dolbeare's work, has been highlighting the regressivity of the homeowner deduction and comparing its largess with the sad treatment given to direct subsidies for low-income households. But there's been little response in the political system or among the public to this or to the related Housing Trust Fund legislation the Coalition drafted. (Ironically, both Clinton and Dole proposed changes in the capital gains tax treatment of homes that would make homeownership, especially for upper-income people, even more attractive.) What is the potential for this issue to become a rallying force for low-income housing advocates?

HD: The concept of the Trust Fund has potential, but for us to run off and engage in a discussion about the mortgage deduction before everyone is committed to solving the nation's housing problem is premature, because once people are committed to a problem, creative solutions come from other places. Maybe the mortgage deduction is the right answer, but my sense is that there are others as well. The concept of a trust fund, though, is a good concept, whether the dollars that go into it come from Congress deciding they're going to re-engineer credit reform, or from some other part of the budget, or from the mortgage deduction.


CH: What do you see as the potential for greater collaborative work between the National Low Income Housing Coalition and other national groups doing parallel, and in some instances overlapping, housing work? Specifically, I'm thinking of the Center for Community Change, the National Housing Law Project, the Housing Assistance Council, the National Housing Trust, the National Coalition for the Homeless.

HD: I come to this job not having had tremendous experience with all of those organizations. I certainly know the National Housing Trust, having served on its board, and I certainly know the Law Project, having shared work with them. But I'm in the "get to know" stage, so I'm not ready to talk about the specifics of how we collaborate, other than to say we have a rich fabric of committed people. I am struck by the fact that there are several groups dealing with homeless advocacy in this country. And there are organizations you didn't mention that I think represent a place we can go. The AFL-CIO's Housing Trust Fund, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, even the National Housing Conference in some parts of the country are very much a bridge into the very low-income housing advocacy community. So I don't know yet how it is those folks come together, but I do know that the task before us all is to figure out how to create a vision for five to ten years from now, and how to get the American people to want that vision. We've got to do it together; we can't do it by ourselves.

CH: What about linkages with more local groups that work on housing, although it may not be their central issue: groups like ACORN and the Industrial Areas Foundation, for example?

HD: As you go further uphill, my knowledge goes further downhill. So I can suggest that the only way we leverage housing is to build it into a network of folks dealing with other issues. I see those issues in the next two years principally as being job development, economic development, welfare reform, health care, and education. We must do that at the local level and national level.

CH: Do you see any possible lines of collaboration with real estate industry groups, such as the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Realtors, American Bankers Association, Fannie Mae, etc.?

HD: Without collaboration with them, we ultimately do not produce affordable housing in this country. To sit here and suggest that we can even maintain what we have without talking to the folks with the capital is to ignore capitalist principles. Also, they're rich not only with resources, but with the capacities and the delivery system. The public delivery system has been disinvested in for decades, as I discussed earlier. The private delivery system has not, and I'm thinking particularly of programs like those of Fannie Mae and the Federal Home Loan Bank system. So we need to struggle with how we collaborate.

CH: With regard to the newly revived labor movement, do you see potential for mutually beneficial linkages there, on issues such as use of union trust funds for housing, union sponsorship of housing development, the jobs issue, collective bargaining contract language that takes housing into consideration?

HD: All of the above.

CH: In a recent Memo to Members, you noted that "the potential of the private marketplace, if provided the appropriate incentives, is boundless." Your experience at HUD, I would imagine, provided you with some good examples of the private marketplace, but also some horror stories. Can you reconcile that experience with your more recent pronouncement?

HD: Absolutely. The private sector will do what it's asked to do and what it's rewarded for. When you're rewarded for raising management fees instead of providing good housing, you raise management fees. When you're rewarded for building and constructing and maintaining your housing, you do that. Obviously, there are exceptions, and we can focus on the owner who figures out how to abuse the system, no matter how good the system is. But in general, in the last decade or two, we have created a system where people get paid no matter what they do. If we go back to paying people for producing that which we want, the private sector is very capable of that – that includes the nonprofit private sector.

One of the ways we would best accomplish this is to [make the resident's perspective central in] measuring if they've been provided with what they're paying for. One of the biggest negatives of the affordable housing system in this country is that the relationship is between two parties; sometimes it's government and the private owner, sometimes it's government and the non-profit owner, sometimes it's a public agency, but the relationship is between these two entities, and the customer – the resident – is not part of the relationship. If we as a society want that to work, putting residents in the center of that relationship again will make a big difference. Now I don't want anybody to go off and say that I said vouchers are the only way to go, because that's not what I mean. What I mean is that residents need to be able to vote, so to speak. Not only with their feet, but with their voice in the operation and maintenance of where they live. Just like you and I do where we live.

CH: With respect to your recent tenure at HUD, I don't think it's any secret that some eyebrows were raised in the housing advocacy community regarding your appointment to head the Coalition, given some of your actions and statements while at HUD, particularly regarding HUD's first Mark to Market proposal to deregulate and voucher out project-based Section 8-supported housing [see Shelterforce #82], and your support for the abolition of LIHPRHA [the Low Income Housing Preservation and Resident Homeownership Act]. What can you say about the apparent disjuncture between the Coalition's position on these issues and yours while at HUD, and do you see that hindering your effectiveness here?

HD: My understanding and experience of making choices in a budget environment where the resources are declining is of benefit to the Coalition. I come with a much better understanding of those questions than somebody who wasn't struggling with solving them. I also do not believe that the fundamental objective of providing good quality housing choices for low-income people is different for me as an employee of HUD or an employee of the Coalition. I think there's a perception that I had power that in fact belonged to a collective of people.

As far as the future of Section 8, I don't regret having pointed out to people the tremendous problems of how you reconcile the leaping Section 8 costs with the congressional and administrative mandates to balance the budget. I'm quite proud of the fact that I was willing to stand up and say, "We've got a problem here" when nobody wanted to recognize there was a problem. I'm also one of the first to recognize that in that environment, we all went to simple solutions for a complicated problem. I think everybody is recognizing that now. However, the more complicated the solution, the more potential there is that nobody will do anything, which leaves us back with the distress. Whether I'm in the Department or out here pointing it out to my friends, we have $2 for $4 worth of things. So we can either, a) start recognizing that and focusing on the fact that we either need $4 or need to make hard choices on how we spend the $2; or b) we can let somebody else do it for us and complain about it. The goal here is to start taking some responsibility for proposing solutions, and not just saying "It's not enough."

CH: One of the weaknesses of the housing movement has been the failure to create really effective ties between the national level and grassroots groups. While the Coalition connects to local activities via its Legislative Alerts and annual conference, there is little coordination over strategies, tactics, goals – compared, for example, to how ACORN coordinates its local and headquarters activities. Does your agenda include ways to make those connections more effectively? And, going back to something you said earlier, are there any technological fixes that can help?

HD: The question is really multi-faceted. I think [Shelterforce] readers are aware that the Coalition has been active in developing financing and providing support for some state coalitions. Sometimes the agenda of those state coalitions has a national focus, and sometimes it has a local and state focus, and both are appropriate. I wouldn't want us to be about the business of pulling people's energy to a national problem if their perception and their actions work better at the local level. I ultimately believe the solutions to most of these problems are going to be different in different markets with different communities, and therefore what we ought to be doing is proliferating the information about need.

What we ought to do is figure out how to help people share what they're doing so they can do it better at the local level. Technology, the Net, quick access to information, and the ability to communicate with each other day and night is now available. It's much easier for people to communicate today quickly and personally with the Hill than it was five years ago. That's very empowering.We have some responsibility as a Coalition to make sure that we inform people of the consequences of what's happening here in Washington or what's happening in Albany on what they're doing at the local level. I would love to find a way for John Hennenberger and Bill Faith [heads, respectively, of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and the Coalition on Housing & Homelessness in Ohio] to talk to each other regularly about the issues in Ohio and Texas, and I could be just an observer of that communication. I'm not a necessary gateway for that communication. We have a responsibility to make it easier for them to do that.

CH: Your own background reflects strength principally in housing development and policy, not in organizing or politics, I think it's fair to say. How do you plan to strengthen the Coalition's organizing and lobbying work?

HD: I guess I take exception to the observation. First of all, I was a local elected official for ten years. I actually come out of Head Start. I spent eight years working with community action agencies during the War on Poverty. So I didn't start out in housing, I taught myself the housing business from an organizer perspective.

My first major housing experience was organizing a citizen movement to demand that the community I came from use its Community Development Block Grant money for housing and not to build a new dam (which is what they were trying to do). Now, with that background, it is certainly legitimate to raise a question about how the Coalition improves its organizing efforts. I think it does so by figuring out what it's organizing around and about and defining how we leverage housing into the national debate, how we broaden that coalition to include labor and those homeowners you asked about earlier. I think I come with the understanding and experience of how to do that, having done that at the local and national levels.

Getting the Message Out

CH: You touched on the media earlier. How can the Coalition and grassroots groups do a better job with the media, to get them to pay more and better attention to our issues?

HD: The first thing we need to do is take a look at what message we are all sending to the media, and whether or not that's something the media and community want to hear.  Clearly, building a relationship with the local media is something that most folks who have worked in the local community for any length of time have learned how to do. Recently, there was a front-page article in the Washington Post about a disgusting piece of assisted housing here in the District [Clifton Terrace], with a long, unique and arduous history. [Since the article ran], I've received phone calls from some of the community-based non-profits that do housing in the city, complaining that they were running great housing. In one case, a group dedicated a great new project, invited the media, and nobody showed up. And yet, here was this negative story all over the paper.

We all know that the press enjoys the opportunity to investigate, profile, and otherwise expose the negative. I don't think I know how to change that. So we have to figure out how to link what we are doing to those objectives of the press, and then also offer them opportunities where they can make an impact. The education and involvement of the media has become incredibly sophisticated. That's why the Coalition has gone out and raised money from the Surdna Foundation to do a profile of what messages are being heard [by the media], what's being picked up and what's not being picked up.

CH: I realize there are limitations in your ability to discuss this issue, but within those limits, could you comment on your legal and political troubles that have received recent coverage in US News & World Report, Barron's, The Washington Times, and elsewhere. You are being sued, along with HUD and the Small Business administration, by a disgruntled FHA contractor who charges you with favoritism in awarding contracts and prejudice against "TOMs" (tired old males). He's obviously got a political axe to grind and has hired a p.r. consultant – who seems to be very effective in getting publicity for his charges, at least to the extent that the HUD Inspector General is investigating – and North Carolina's right-wing Senator Lauch Faircloth is getting into the act as Chair of the HUD Oversight Committee and intends to hold hearings on the matter. What can you say about these charges and the potential impact on your work for the Coalition?

HD: The first thing I can say is that I've shared the details of this issue with the [NLIHC] Board. And I've made a commitment to the Board that if this issue detracts from the work of the Coalition, I will move on. Beyond that, I can't really talk about the details, other than to say, as I did to US News & World Report , that I'm proud of the work that I did at the Department and that the charges implied in the article are without merit.

CH: Finally, what in brief will be your year-one agenda for the Coalition?

HD: My objectives for the Coalition at this point are to work with its board and its staff to define an agenda for the Coalition for the next several years. Objective one is to re-energize the Coalition's mission and to re-engage in a larger discussion and debate, both here in Washington and outside of Washington. While the Coalition has been very active in the public housing and assisted housing debate, it has not been involved in some of the opportunities that exist to fashion a new agenda for healthy communities.

Secondly, the Coalition is known and is well regarded as a source for high-quality information around the country's housing needs and the cost of housing. Ironically, US News & World Report called the Coalition to verify its numbers for its recent article. I want to make absolutely certain that that capacity is retained, and I look forward over the next year to finding ways to share that information in the new tradition – such as through our Web page, expanding the Memo to Members distribution list, creating a two-way feedback opportunity for people to share. I see as our objective over the next year expanding the ways that we provide information and the ways that people provide information to each other. That information may be around the specifics of an advocacy organizing issue of the moment, and it may be over how to address some of the larger systemic problems.

A third objective is for the Coalition to be a major voice on the impacts of welfare reform on housing and the viability of communities. And that means everything from understanding it well enough to be that voice, to taking advantage of every opportunity.

CH: Thank you.

Copyright 1997

Chester Hartman is a contributing editor of Shelterforce and the executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, D.C.

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