City Paper is not for tourists
Mayor Vince Gray’s pick to head the Department of Housing and Community Development has been on the job for four weeks, and already had to deal with a massive Washington Post series critical of both his former and current employers. And he’s moving in to a new apartment tomorrow! As has become Housing Complex habit, I caught up with Texas native John Hall yesterday to talk budgets, scandals, and the g-word.
So, how’d you get this job?
My understanding is that Victor Hoskins did an executive search, and I was endorsed by Mayor Gray, and so here I am.
Why’d you decide to decide to leave a comfortable gig at HUD to take this one?
That’s a very good question, because it’s one that I thought of as well. At the end of the day, realistically, it was like, I have about 25 years left of my career to go at a minimum, and I still have this notion I can have positive impact on communities around the country. And so this opportunity, I viewed it as one in a lifetime. Where else will I get the opportunity to be front and center in our nation’s capital, to try to make a positive mark? When I was in the D.C. field office, I told my staff this all the time: We’re based here, so we should be the best here.
What exactly did you do in your last job?
I was responsible for all program delivery through the commonwealth of Virginia, and when I was in the D.C. field office, of the metropolitan D.C. area. So really what that means is anything that needed to be facilitated or expedited, I was the go-to person. I was, if you will, the political arm, even though it wasn’t a political position. I basically coordinated secretarial and presidential initiatives, making sure that agencies such as DHCD was aware of the priorities of HUD, what we were doing, and how we could work locally to effectuate some of those initiatives.
Do you live in the District?
Previously, I lived in Prince Georges County. I will be moving into the District Wednesday of this week. With everything going on, I was able to find an apartment to rent, and am looking forward to becoming an official District resident.
What’s unique to the District from a housing perspective that you’re going to have to deal with?
In addition to being the nation’s capital, and being under a fishbowl, D.C. is landlocked. So I think making effective decisions on housing production, where you do it and how you do it, is going to be vital. It’s also going to be vital how you leverage resources that are out there, so that you’re not building in a vacuum. I’d like to see a master development plan done, and that usually helps get everybody on board. It would involve coordination with the Office of Planning. Whether we do it ward by ward, what are some prime areas that we can use as nodes—I think the corridor here with Good Hope and Martin Luther King is very prime. Development is coming this way. So to plan ahead, instead of being reactive to development, is going to be key for us as well.
So obviously, the issue of the day is the Post’s big investigation into lack of oversight on millions of dollars of HUD funding for local jurisdictions. Were you aware of the problems while you were at HUD?
Not while I was in my HUD position, no. I became aware of the issues on April 22, 2011, which coincided with my last day at HUD. I was under strict ethics rules, so I couldn’t do any preparation or look at any D.C. deals. So I made a point not to look at anything D.C. from March until April 22. And that was one of the first things I saw, I was like, ‘oh my goodness.’ I was pretty much taken off guard because my time at HUD, I oversaw D.C., Southern Maryland, and Northern Virginia, and D.C. was not on our radar. It was actually another local government in Southern Maryland. And so a lot of my time was spent at the other local government in Southern Maryland, trying to help them get across the hurdle.
You mean Prince Georges County?
[Nods] So D.C. wasn’t across the threshold, per se, at that time.
In terms of red flags.
So you were aware of some of the things going on in the region.
Were you proactively working to address those at the time?
Yes. Oh yes. You have to remember, from a HUD standpoint, you can only do as much s the grantee will allow. And so my previous experience in Southern Maryland was that they were hands off. They weren’t receptive to the technical assistance we were trying to provide. Which is the complete opposite of here, at DHCD, because I’m here, I know what’s available as far as technical assistance we can seek in order to get things back on track.
What did you think of the story’s overall conclusion?
I think it was fair. It maybe could have been a little more hopeful. But the truth hurts, and I will use it as an opportunity to adjust. I look at this story as basically a monitoring visit. It highlighted some things where we’re not doing so hot.
So this is your agency now. What about it do you think needs to change?
Well, I’m still in an assessment mode. I’m starting my fourth week today, and I generally like to give detailed feedback after the first three months. But just so you have an answer, some of the things that are on my mind now are, especially in light of the article, is that we really want to make sure we are efficient in our processes. Also that we are effecitive in the programs that we have. I think we have a great staff, it’s just, are we optimizing everyone’s talents, skills, and abilities in the best way we can. We’re going to have an organizational assessment done, with some technical assistance that I’ve requested, so I’m really waiting on that project to come in and give me either validation or other direction in what should be done.
D.C.’s had trouble landing federal grants, in part because of a lack of voting representation in Congress. How can do a better job of that?
In my opinion, I believe that DHCD has done a pretty good job in getting its fair share of funding. Not only do you have the entitlement funds that come to us like clockwork, CDBG and HOME, you also have competitive grants that come out, and DHCD has been pretty successful. Most recently, we’ve received Neighborhood Stabilization Funding, Round III as a state. All of the states mostly receive $5 million, and D.C. was recognized as a state in that sense, whereas when NSP I came out in 2008, it received very minimal funding compared to other cities and states. So I think Congress made the adjustment, and D.C. benefited in the third round.
In D.C., we obviously have local funding issues. The Housing Production Trust Fund hasn’t issued a new request for proposals since 2007. Do you anticipate being able to do that again soon?
For the Housing Production Trust Fund RFPs, you’re correct, there hasn’t been one in a long time, and currently, we have enough in the pipeline that doesn’t necessitate an RFP. And I foresee that pipeline lasting until this time last year, before we can get through all of those, because we’re going to do it right. We’re not going to get the deals done just to do another RFP. But as I say that, I come to a second category where we’re going to be able to have RFPs, and that’s our discrete funding from HOME, I think we get $9 million every year. And we get annual funding in CDBG funds, and we’ve also received NSP III. So I think those are opportunities for us to solicit proposals, so they can see we do have funding, we’re trying to listen to the community to produce affordable housing and community development. So although the Housing Production Trust Fund is pretty much tapped out at the moment, there are other RFPs that will be done.
One of the big budget pushes from affordable housing people is to get $18 million of Housing Production Trust Fund back from funding the local rent supplement program.
Yes, it is projected that the mayor is planning to take $18 million for the next four years out of the Housing Production Trust Fund. However, it is projected that the market is picking aback up, and the HPTF will have increased revenue. So at the end of the day, the $18 million will help current D.C. residents who are risk of being displaced maintain housing. So we don’t want to fully fund HPTF in order to have tenants who are at risk become displaced, and then we’re creating another problem. So I stand strongly behind Mayor Gray’s determination that hey, the HPTF is going to increase in revenue, and it’ll be pretty much offset by this debit of the $18 million.
The other thing advocates want to know about is tenant purchase, and whether the city will continue to invest in that.
From what you know about DC’s rent control policies, do you think any adjustments need to be made?
At this point, I’m still in an assessment mode, I haven’t come to any conclusions on either side yet…but I know that there is a balance when it comes to rent control.
More holistically: You can’t get away from the word “gentrification” in this city. What’s your take on that? Is it something, like the councilmember of this ward says, we need to combat?
Gentrification is a double-edged sword. Every community wants investment. They want to see their communities thrive. And so pretty much my answer to this is, what we need to do for those areas that have lacked investment for significant decades, I think more aggressive action needs to be done to help those residents that have been rooted in the communities to give them the opportunities to get ahead of that curve.
When I worked running a nonprofit, I was charged to do that. The last subdivision was built in 1955, and here it was, 2004, I’m coming out of nowhere trying to make something out of nothing. The strategy needs to be, do a community assessment. You have people rooted there, it’s their home. So I think what needs to be done is ways to let them have an opportunity to get ahead of the curve by providing financial literacy so that more of the residents can become creditworthy, to take on those opportunities as development comes.
In Lubbock, the area was saturated with multifamily dwellings. So I didn’t want to build more multifamily, I wanted to build single-family detached homes. I had tons of people coming in, but I had almost no one who was creditworthy. So I had to start a financial literacy workshop, to really partner with the local HUD office, with the Internal Revenue Service, with FDIC. And so as I created this pipeline of potential buyers, I didn’t look at them as buyers, I said I need to empower you with knowledge, so that you can adjust your spending habits so that if you really want homeownership, you can have it, once the construction starts. I only wanted three creditworthy people when I started. We were only going to build the housing for people who were preapproved. That’s another thing—no spec. All pre-sold. And so, to my delight, at the end of that process, I had 17 people with preapprovals. This planned subdivision was going to be 58 households, and our first phase was about 28. So right out the gate, I was almost done with the first segment of the development. And I had more than 300 people in the pipeline.
Gentrification is gonna happen in most cities. You can see it moving from Navy Yard across the river. And the residents need to be prepared and equipped for it.
What’s the role of zoning for density when we’re talking about creating more housing?
That might be a question for Planning. From a developer’s point of view, they’re always going to want as many units as we can get in there. From a community development sense, we really want mixed income neighborhoods, we want a variety. Because every product is not for every one. You don’t want to put everyone in a high-rise. You want to have the neighborhood friendly effect as well. I know from talking to Councilmember Barry, one of his major focuses is on single-family detached, and homeownership. So it’s about going back to this master development plan idea, how can we produce various types of housing to reach everyone. You have your zero-lot homes that someone like me would be happy to have because I don’t want to take care of a yard. But then you have families that need a front and a back yard.
How are you going to get people to move back to the city?
I think the key ingredient is going to be the housing stock that we have to offer. Is it diversified, is there a choice for people to have a range of housing options? People as they age, are going to want to move back into the city to be closer to the services. So we need to make sure we perform a market analysis that depicts how much and what types of housing variation that we will have to offer. And I think other than that, the District is positioned. We have everything inside—the museums, entertainment, restaurants, healthcare facilities. It’s just, really, the housing.