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Outgoing HUD chief on why finding a decent place to live is a challenge for many

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, the president unveiled plans to address the nation's housing challenges. There are a lot of them. Measures to tackle inflation, especially pushing up interest rates, have pushed the homeownership dream out of reach for many people. Still, speaking to a crowd in Nevada, Biden touted what his administration has done so far.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Unemployment is down dramatically, with more Nevadans working today than ever before in the history of Nevada. Thousands of cities across all of America are seeing this great comeback story.

MARTIN: The president says he wants to direct more than $250 billion to help build more affordable housing, to drive down rents and make it easier to own. As secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge has played a key role in all of these initiatives. But after three years on the job and nearly five decades as a public servant, she tells us she is retiring from public life. I have spoken with the secretary several times over the course of her tenure, and she is with us now once again as she moves on. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for joining us one last time.

MARCIA FUDGE: Oh, thank you for having me. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: What made this the right time? I mean, it just seems as though your issues are finally getting the spotlight as you have been working toward all these years. What made this the time to step away?

FUDGE: A number of things. One, of course, is I just want to go home. You know, I have been away from home for more than 20 years, and it's just time to go, you know, have an aging mother. I have family that, really, I'd like to spend some more time with. So it just became time. I feel really, really good, Michel, about what we have been able to do.

MARTIN: Well, you said you were leaving with mixed emotions. Would you say more about that?

FUDGE: Yeah. Because there's always more work to do. And so if there is any regret that I would have at all, it would just be that I just couldn't do enough. But then, on the other hand, I know the environment in which I work, and I also know that not much is going to be done through this election cycle. And I just gave it everything I had.

MARTIN: Your administration made a lot of moves to address affordability and equity. Some of the numbers are moving in a positive direction. For example, like, the Black homeownership rate is starting to tick back up. But the biggest pain point in American housing is that housing costs are still outpacing average household income. I mean, a lot of people can't afford to buy a home, and a lot of people have to move year after year because rent continues to go up. I mean, is it just that market forces right now are just too strong to make a serious dent in this problem?

FUDGE: The real issue, Michel, is that for decades, we have not invested in moderate and low-income housing in this country. Everybody wants a McMansion. Everybody wants two-acre lots. We cannot build houses the way our parents and grandparents built them. And so we neglected to build anything that most average Americans can afford. And so we finally are now at a point where it is a crisis. The only way we get out of this, Michel, is to build more affordable housing. And it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take years. We are 3 million units short today of affordable housing. Three million. And so as long as there is this lack of supply and this high demand, the prices are going to go up.

MARTIN: Housing is - it's a local issue. It's a state issue. I mean, there are so many sort of different factors here. It's a market issue. Is there a role that you feel that the government should play that it isn't now playing?

FUDGE: Oh, absolutely. I think that we're going to have to start to do more public private partnerships, which are some of the things that we've started doing, and that's why we've been able to put more housing in the market. We also need to go into communities like the ones I come from. I come from Cleveland, Ohio. We need to start to find ways to preserve core communities and not allow the kind of gentrification we've been seeing, not allow private companies to come in and just buy up swaths of land. We need to make sure that those properties remain affordable.

MARTIN: Let's talk about homelessness, too. I mean, we've - a number of cities are also struggling to handle a large influx of migrants coming from the southern border. I mean, shelters in New York, for example, ran out of space. What would make the biggest difference in this issue?

FUDGE: The biggest difference for those who are unhoused would be for us to create very low-income housing. We've got to get away from shelters. We have to get away from tent cities. We issued about $3 billion to communities across the country to assist them in dealing with unhoused people in their communities. Instead of shelters, they're building tiny houses. Instead of congregate places, they're building places that have common areas but have private rooms. We're doing all of that kind of thing just to get people initially off the streets into an environment where they can start to heal. That really is the answer to homelessness is housing.

MARTIN: It's just interesting that the White House has announced these very ambitious proposals. Do you envision advising them informally after you leave office?

FUDGE: I hope so. It is my intention, yes.

MARTIN: Marcia Fudge is the 18th secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She retires - so she tells us - today. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

FUDGE: Thank you for having me. It's a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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