HUD Secretary Ben Carson has touted his initiative to create EnVision Centers around the country, which links Public Housing residents to services that promote self-sufficiency. But in the nine months since the demonstration was announced not a single center has opened.
The program’s delay is the latest indication of management issues at HUD. There have also been questions about the management qualifications of senior staff appointments and the loss of experienced officials.
Secretary Carson unveiled the EnVision Center demonstration program last June, designating 17 locations around the country. The EnVision Centers would be located near public housing properties and provide centralized hubs where HUD-assisted households can connect to services that promote self-sufficiency. HUD says the services will be clustered around four “pillars” of self-sufficiency: 1) economic empowerment; 2) educational advancement; 3) health and wellness, and: 4) character and leadership.
According to HUD, the centers will be run through results-driven partnerships. Partners will include federal agencies, state and local governments, public housing authorities, housing finance agencies, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations, and tribal housing organizations. HUD will monitor the demonstrations to make sure achievements are matching goals. HUD, however, has provided little guidance on what is expected of the centers and no funding for local sponsors to run the EnVision Centers.
HUD appears to be consolidating and rebranding existing service programs as a way to do the demonstration without providing any extra funding. The EnVision Centers received no funding in President Trump’s FY2018 and FY2019 budget proposals. But even if existing programs are being relocated to the new hub, additional staff and office costs need to be covered. In some cases, vague goals and the lack of funding have made it hard to recruit local organizations.
Chad Williams is Executive Director of the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority. The housing authority serves an area including Las Vegas, where the affordable housing crisis is severe. NBC News reported that when approached by HUD to sponsor an EnVision Center, he said, “No one knows what they are actually supposed to do. I was approached to run one, and I said: ‘What does it do? Where’s the funding?’” He declined to participate in the program. The Boys and Girls Club of Detroit had also been approached to sponsor an EnVision Center, but decided not to participate. The Executive Director and Board felt it was not a good fit for their mission and the costs to their own resources would be too high.
Many of the local agencies selected as EnVision Centers had already started or planned similar efforts to consolidate service centers. A center in Spokane, Washington, was already underway when the EnVision Center designation was offered. According to NBC News, the CEO of the Spokane Workforce Council said, “This concept came along and aligned with what we were working on.” Some of the agencies selected also said that even though there is no funding for the initiative, being part of the EnVision Center demonstration will help attract other support for the services.
HUD officials have blamed the EnVision Center delays primarily on the bureaucratic process. They note that housing officials are still seeking local input about the unique needs in their communities. Still, Secretary Carson is not happy with the progress on the EnVision Centers. He is counting on recent staffing changes to improve progress, according to NBC News.
Management, staffing and communication issues seem to plague HUD in many ways. Besides the slow rollout of the EnVision Centers, HUD’s failure to renew 1,150 Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance contracts before the recent government shutdown suggests a lack of management oversight. House Democrats have begun investigating why thousands of low-income renters were unnecessarily placed at risk during the shutdown.
House Democrats said that HUD should have had funds available for the contract renewals. The temporary spending measures enacted through the Fall had “advance appropriations” so that programs can continue without interruption until year-long funding is approved. HUD knew by early December that a shutdown might happen later in the month. A Democratic staffer asked, “Who was in charge? If you thought there was going to be a problem it should have gone up the chain.” HUD officials appeared at a February hearing with the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations subcommittee. They told the Representatives that old technology, operating under temporary spending measures and the bureaucratic process slowed up approving funds for obligation.
HUD’s management capacity is also a question mark. Although a world-renowned surgeon, Secretary Ben Carson has no experience running a large bureaucracy and little knowledge of affordable housing programs. He filled the influential Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff positions in 2018 with people who lack housing, legislative or management experience and appear to have gained their positions because of their ties to the Secretary.
Carson appointed Andrew Hughes, 32, his new Chief of Staff in early May. The appointment raised concerns because the Chief of Staff is a very powerful position within the agency. It is usually filled by people with years of management-level experience. Hughes has no housing, management, government or legislative experience. Hughes worked on get-out-the-vote efforts on the Carson and Trump presidential campaigns. Prior to that he worked at the University of Texas as a special projects coordinator managing social media, funding research, event planning and following legislation related to higher education. At the end of May, Secretary Carson announced that Alfonso Costa, Jr., 29, would fill the Deputy Chief of Staff position Mr. Costa is the son of a close friend and business associate of the Secretary. Despite his lack of work experience, HUD’s spokesman said Costa’s college and graduate achievements at Yale, Oxford and Harvard Law will allow him to make significant contributions to the agency.
In addition, Pamela Patenaude, Deputy Secretary of HUD, resigned in December. She ran operations at HUD and is widely credited by staff as instrumental to the functioning of the agency. Patenaude has extensive housing experience and held senior HUD appointments in the George W. Bush administration. Advocates mourned the loss of her expertise and commitment to helping Puerto Rico rebuild from Hurricane Maria’s damage. She cited personal reasons for leaving, but it was reported that she clashed with the Administration over changes to fair housing rules and efforts to hold back funds for Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery.
Now that Democrats control the House of Representatives, HUD will face more oversight. HUD’s programs support renters with the lowest incomes, and providing affordable housing is challenging in the best of circumstances. Poor management and communication problems make it even harder. Congressional oversight may be what is needed to push HUD to improve its performance.