The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing on November 13 to consider the nomination of Lourdes Castro Ramirez for the position of Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing (PIH) at HUD. She was nominated by President Obama on August 1 (see Memo, 8/4). Also under consideration was the nomination of Theresa McMillan for the position of Federal Transit Administrator at the Department of Transportation (DOT).
Committee Chair Tim Johnson (D-SD) was the only member of the Committee present at the hearing. Senator Johnson said “Ms. Castro Ramirez would bring 20 years of experience leading and managing affordable housing and community development programs at the local level.”
In her testimony, Ms. Castro Ramirez emphasized her experience with affordable housing and economic development programs over the span of nearly two decades. She began her career with Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation in Ventura County, CA. Soon after, she joined the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), where she first served as Director of HACLA’s Jobs-Plus program. She later served as Director of HACLA’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program with a budget of more than $400 million. During her time as Director, Ms. Castro Ramirez transformed the HCV program from “Troubled” status to “High Performer.”
Ms. Castro Ramirez is currently the President and CEO of the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), a Moving-to-Work (MTW) public housing agency. She touted the partnerships SAHA formed under MTW to secure new investments and produce 424 new affordable housing units, providing San Antonio with its largest stock of affordable housing ever. Under her leadership, SAHA has had five years of clean financial audits.
When asked by Chair Johnson about her commitment to fulfilling the federal government’s responsibility to Native American communities, Ms. Castro Ramirez vowed to commit herself to learning more about the housing issues faced by Native Americans and how HUD can assist them. In a written statement, Committee Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-ID) said, “Indian Housing is a big part of this job…so I appreciate her willingness to learn.”
Chair Johnson asked Ms. Castro Ramirez about her top priorities for the position. She replied that she would work with Secretary Julián Castro to advance the vision of HUD as the “Department of Opportunity” by strengthening its core programs, expanding innovative new programs that work well, and by streamlining administrative procedures to allow public housing agencies (PHAs) to serve families more efficiently. She also spoke of the importance of linking families to additional services that help them achieve stability, which may entail partnering with school districts and workforce development groups, among others. When asked about the possibility of collaborating with other HUD offices and government agencies to promote opportunity, Ms. Castro Ramirez said it is her intention to “strengthen interaction between programs that serve the same individuals, families, and neighborhoods.”
Before Ms. Castro Ramirez’s nomination goes to the full Senate for a vote, it must be voted out of the Banking Committee. The Committee has not scheduled a vote at this time.
The nomination has been slowed down by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), who issued a hold on Ms. Castro Ramirez’s nomination on November 12. Any Senator can place a hold on any Senate vote for any reason, blocking consideration. In a statement issued by Senator Grassley, he said, “Over the last four years, I’ve been raising concerns about serious problems at public housing authorities and HUD’s failure to address them. The Office of Public and Indian Housing is responsible for overseeing the public housing authority program.”
Senator Grassley gave two reasons for his hold. First, he referenced a letter that 27 organizations sent to HUD on November 7, seeking “a more open, inclusive, and transparent process as HUD negotiates the terms for any potential extensions of Moving to Work Agreements past their current 2018 expiration.”
All 39 existing MTW Agreements expire in 2018 and HUD is currently negotiating with the PHAs on extension of these agreements. Although HUD has briefed NLIHC and other national stakeholder groups on the status of these negotiations, HUD has not engaged local advocates in contract negotiations, even though they are intimately familiar with the use of MTW flexibilities at their local PHAs.
“Both the HUD Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, audited the MTW program. Both determined that little program oversight is actually being done,” Senator Grassley said in his November 12 statement. “Instead of taking steps to improve program performance and provide more effective oversight, the Agency is, instead, rushing to extend contracts for an additional ten years.”
The second reason Senator Grassley gave for his action is the salary level of some PHA directors, which he thinks are too high. “Instead of providing safe, affordable housing for those in need, housing authority officials are using federal funding to feather their own nests,” Senator Grassley said.
Chair Johnson’s statement is available at http://www.banking.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Newsroom.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=ad778bf7-bf67-b925-bce1-c413f4e04a0c&Region_id=&Issue_id=
Ms. Castro Ramirez’s testimony, Ranking Member Crapo’s statement, and a webcast of the hearing are available at http://www.banking.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Hearings.Hearing&Hearing_ID=1b67452f-dd5f-4e8d-8a77-47cc013d709f
Senator Grassley’s statement is at http://www.grassley.senate.gov/sites/default/files/news/upload/Castro%20Ramirez%20hold%20statement%20for%20the%20record.pdf