WASHINGTON -- It’s been about a year since Julián Castro stepped out of the job as mayor of his beloved San Antonio and into the job of secretary of Housing and Urban Development, but all anyone wants to know is whether his next step is becoming Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
It’s understandable. Castro is regarded as the potential first Latino vice president and perhaps, one day, president.
Castro wouldn’t say in an interview with NBC News what his next step is, but he did say he doesn’t mind if the political prognosticating gives his work at HUD – or what he calls the Department of Opportunity - a higher profile.
“I’m happy to do Jiu-Jitsu to get them to care about what we are doing on housing, because these issues are just supremely important to people all along the economic spectrum,” Castro said, jokingly breaking from his usually reserved public persona to feign a martial arts move from his chair.
A year ago Monday, Castro took over running the 8,000-employee agency with a $46 billion budget as the country was pulling itself out of a housing crisis. Last week, existing home sales were at their highest in eight years, keeping the housing recovery going, despite a drop last month in new home sales. “It’s hot,” Castro said.
Castro can tick off a respectable list of what he’s brought to fruition or moved forward at HUD. The agency has reduced mortgage insurance premiums by about $900 annually for more than 2 million people. It has also spearheaded an initiative to bring broadband to public housing in 27 cities and one tribal nation, and has continued progress on housing homeless veterans as well as vets in tribal communities.
On housing anti-discrimination efforts, the agency has created rules for local communities that get federal housing funding and tax credits to integrate housing and improve the choices of neighborhoods where families of all backgrounds can live. The agency effort was buttressed by a Supreme Court fair housing ruling last month that gives more firepower to the agency to guard against discriminatory housing practices.
But the agency faces fiscal challenges, and Castro swiftly criticized the House and Senate's proposed budgets.
"Not only does it not meet what President Obama has requested for housing, in some cases it makes significant cuts to what we already have, so in a nation that is growing, where we see an affordability crisis out there and more need, it’s going in the other direction completely and completely hamstringing our ability to meet those needs,” Castro said.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's transportation and housing subcommittee, said in budget times "difficult decisions had to be made."
"As subcommittee chair, I made it a priority to ensure all families and individuals currently receiving housing assistance would continue to do so in the next fiscal year," Diaz-Balart said. "Further, Congress is bound by spending caps laid out in statute by the Budget Committee Act - the very same caps that HUD's budget request largely ignores."
Buyers and renters
Castro entered his job with housing and home buying in a tricky place. For years, there had been a strong effort to encourage home buying, but then the housing crisis hit. In sorting out the problems, some blamed an overzealousness in promoting home buying among people who didn't have the means, particularly minorities, and the shuffling of subprime loans their way.
Many of the subprime mortgages, a major factor in the housing crisis, were held by black and Hispanic borrowers.
Now with the housing market largely in recovery and regulations in place against certain lending products, Castro has had to focus on restoring confidence in home buying, said Rolf Pendall, director of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
“(Castro’s) stance has been to help rebalance the conversation that had turned negatively against home ownership in the wake of the crisis,” said Pendall, “Questions from people are ‘Should we support home ownership?’ and ‘Are minorities really competent? Are they able to borrow responsibly?’ The answer is yes, if they are offered products as good as non-minority borrowers are offered." Pendall said.
The Urban Institute projected in a study released last month that through 2030, more than half of new homeowners will be Hispanic. Pendall, who has provided housing research and analysis to the administration, says increasing the number of minority homeowners is a good strategy.
Castro said it is a big priority for the agency. "It’s important that we not slide back to where we were before in the housing crisis. Important safeguards have been put in place so that we won’t slide back," he said. "We need to keep those safeguards in place, but ensure that responsible families of all different backgrounds are able to get access to credit so that they can become homeowners and get that piece of the American Dream."
Meanwhile the rental market has toughened and may be the challenge Castro faces in his remaining months. Renters are being squeezed out of urban centers by high rents and gentrification, as conservative lending standards make home buying more difficult. The Urban Institute projected in a study released last month that new renters will outpace new homeowners for the next 15 years, though home owners will remain more numerous despite declines in home ownership.
"He’s probably going to reach for trying to talk about the rental side of the equation," Pendall said of Castro. "Rent is higher than it has been since 1990s because of the continued slowness of home ownership and millennials entering the housing market ... Articulating the rental side of the situation, not just rental assistance (for low income people) but also for total rental supply, is what I hope to see emerging more forcefully this year and in the next year."
Safeguarding Fair Housing
Aside from continued efforts to boost minority homeownership rates, HUD is still wrangling with housing discrimination 50 years after the agency was elevated to Cabinet level. (That anniversary is in September).
Early this month, HUD expanded on the work by issuing new rules on housing segregation. The rules have been hailed by civil rights activists but have drawn opposition from some who see them as imposing on local control.
Castro said the new rules take HUD’s work beyond rooting out discriminatory landlords by sending out black couples and white couples, undercover, to rent or buy housing. Though that continues to be done, he said HUD's new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rules give communities that receive grants access to data so they can assess and undo segregation patterns in their neighborhoods.
“I think it’s fair to say that we’ve made a lot of progress in our nation since 1965," Castro said. "At the same time, look at the events that are happening in cities today. We think about what happened in Charleston, (South Carolina). We think about what’s happened in Baltimore, (Maryland), in Ferguson, (Missouri), in other places,” Castro said.
"It’s clear we have a lot of work to do and HUD has a role through fair housing and providing investments to make things better.”