Community Dividend

Assistant Secretary Retsinas' speech highlights housing conference

Community Dividend presents excerpts from a speech that Nicholas Retsinas, HUD Assistant Secretary for Housing-Federal Housing Commissioner, delivered to a South Dakota housing conference.

Nicholas Retsinas

Published December 1, 1997  | December 1997 issue

Nearly 200 housing professionals from across South Dakota and neighboring states attended the Seventh Annual South Dakota Housing Development Authority (SDHDA) Statewide Housing Conference held Oct. 16-17 in Pierre, S.D. The conference was cosponsored by the SDHDA, USDA Rural Development and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

The conference keynote speaker was Nicolas Retsinas, assistant secretary for Housing-Federal Housing Commissioner, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Community Dividend is pleased to present excerpts of Retsinas' speech.

I was pleased to note the title of your conference today, "Partnering for Housing Development . . . One Community at a Time." The key word, of course, is "partnering."

I've been with this department a little over four years, and as I reflect back, what I think I've learned the most is how humbling the responsibilities are. And how naïve for any one entity, even the federal government, to think that it and it alone could address the diversity and depth of needs throughout the country.

Changing roles

I wish I could tell you today that we could turn the clock back 20 years and if you had a peach of a project to do, all you need to do is to apply to one place, get the money, do the project and walk away happy. But it doesn't work that way anymore. I go to ribbon-cutting ceremonies and groundbreakings all the time. It seems every time I go to one, there are more and more people—partners—standing up there with me. You almost need a scorecard to keep track of all of them. I understand the transaction costs to putting all of the partners and programs together. But the reality is that's how it works today.

The other big difference today from 10 to 15 years ago is that the leadership responsibility is now yours. It wasn't always that way. If you look at the history of community development in this country, in many ways most of the new ideas—and certainly most of the new money—came from Washington. The antipoverty programs, the urban renewal programs, the Federal Housing Administration, which revolutionized the mortgage industry in this country—all of them were federal government initiatives. But in 1997, the leadership has to be at the local level. You have to figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it. The challenge for us in the federal government is to be there with you.

When we talk about the role of the federal government being changed to more of a partner and less of a leader, that is not an excuse for us to abandon our responsibilities. We still have a role to play. I recall two years ago the debate in Washington about whether the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among other departments, was to be eliminated. My position on that was and is very simple. I would be happy to support eliminating HUD when every American family lives in decent, safe and sanitary housing, when every community is revitalized and when there are equitable opportunities for all. When that day comes, then I'll go home. But we are a long, long way from that day.

Maintaining focus

These are fascinating times. Every day we read about our booming economy. Generally speaking, it isbooming in terms of job growth and the employment rate, and we seem to have inflation under control. It is a wonderful economy. While there are pockets that are not booming and how long this boom can be sustained is a matter of some debate, certainly in the near term it has been remarkable. Yet something is still missing.

A booming economy cannot be the only measure of greatness of a country. It's wonderful that we've passed 8,000 in the Dow Jones index. And maybe we're on our way to 9,000 and maybe even 10,000. That's wonderful for all of your 401(k)s and your stock market investments, but when I visit communities, I still see people struggling. I see families and the elderly wondering what is going to happen to them. I see single parents somehow trying to balance two jobs and raise their children. And when I talk to them about the Dow Jones, it doesn't seem to resonate. I'm almost embarrassed to talk about it. There has to be a different measure, and that is what you are about. It's one community at a time, one family at a time, one household at a time.

If we can't figure out these issues, if we can't address these issues of affordable housing and community development in the current economic environment, then shame on us. Because some day, the business cycle will turn. And as difficult as the choices are now, they will become much more difficult in the future. The challenge for us is not to lose sight of that, not to be lulled into what we have been doing, but to understand that now is the time to redouble our efforts.

In closing, I'd like to remind you of a quote from the great Senator Hubert Humphrey, who once said, "The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life—the children; those who are in the twilight of life—the aged; those who are in the shadows of life—the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

I wish I could say to you, "I'm here from Washington, not to worry." No. I'm here from Washington to say, "Yes, we will be with you, but you need to tell us where we need to be. We'll be listening, but you need to lead us."