Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), sat for a confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, indicating that she may have an easier time being confirmed for the HUD leadership position than some political observers have anticipated.
While the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) program was not specifically brought up over the course of the hearing, Rep. Fudge — appearing remotely from Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, with her family sitting behind her — was directly asked about issues relevant to reverse mortgage stakeholders including matters related to the Mutual Mortgage Insurance (MMI) Fund, and ways that HUD may be able to address housing issues specifically for seniors and lower-income individuals.
Rep. Fudge was also pressed by Republican senators including Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Tom Cotton of Arkansas about comments she has made in the past regarding what she described as a lack of concern by Republican politicians for people of color, with some senators forgoing the topic of housing entirely to question her views on that matter.
Rep. Fudge’s goals as HUD secretary
Unsurprisingly, much of what Rep. Fudge outlined as her primary goals for serving as the next HUD secretary are shaped by the current crises being faced in the United States, particularly as they are described by the White House: the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn resulting from that crisis take center stage in Fudge’s opening remarks.
“The housing issues our nation faces are real, varied, and touch all of us. I am a strong believer in the Department’s programs and its mission — especially with regard to serving those who face the greatest need,” Rep. Fudge explained. “Senators, I have dedicated my entire life to public service and to working to help low-income families, seniors, and communities. I believe I am up to the challenge that is before me.”
Describing her tenure as mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, Fudge said she recognized many of the problems being faced by the nation’s housing system today and understands the larger implications on housing availability and affordability being faced by disadvantaged populations, and Americans suffering economic insecurity due to COVID-19.
“As mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio I saw firsthand the need for economic development and affordable housing,” Fudge explained. “We improved the city’s tax base and expanded affordable housing opportunities. As a Member of Congress, I tackled the unique challenges of my district, working with my delegation and across the aisle. Our housing issues do not fit into a cookie-cutter mold — and I know that the same is true in each of your states. We need policies and programs that can adapt to meet your unique housing challenges, and I would very much like to work with each of you to find the right answers for your states.”
Of particular attention to the HECM-minded is likely the direct question that Rep. Fudge was asked regarding the state of the MMI Fund, and action she may take to address any outstanding issues related to it.
“I just want to touch on another issue, if I could, and that is the Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.). “Again, this is a fund that protects taxpayers from losses. If you decide to make changes, specifically any lowering of the premiums for that fund, will you commit to making sure that you do that in a collaborative fashion with members of Congress?”
Rep. Fudge pledged to work in good faith with Sen. Toomey and any other lawmaker that raises issues or concerns about the MMI Fund.
“You have my commitment,” Rep. Fudge replied. “If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed, I will take that to the staff at HUD, we will figure out what the status is right now, and come back to you to have discussions about where we should go from there. You have [my commitment].”
HUD’s Annual Report to Congress at the end of 2020 revealed that while still recording a loss, the state of the HECM program within the MMI Fund showed notable improvement between 2019 and 2020, with the negative value over the past year having been almost entirely diminished to sit at approximately -$500 million compared with the -$5.92 billion figure recorded in 2019.
This marked a second consecutive annual improvement in the HECM portfolio, though FHA continues to see a need for action to be taken to create further stability in the HECM book. FHA’s perspective on continued need for HECM program reform was re-emphasized in a December Agency Finance Report for Fiscal Year 2020.
Describing past statements, bipartisanship
Fudge described her record in Congress as bipartisan, a description that — outside of a few specific entanglements she engaged in with Republican senators in the hearing — appears to indicate that there is a path forward for her nomination. When asked separately by Sens. Toomey, Scott, Cotton and John Kennedy (R-La.) about a past comment that cast Republicans in general as uncaring about issues faced by people of color, Fudge responded to each question asking for her record to be consulted.
“Let me just suggest that I have always been able to work across the aisle, I have a reputation that shows my bipartisanship,” Fudge told Sen. Toomey. “I have always listened. I am one of the most bipartisan members in the House of Representatives. And I think that if you would check, my record would reflect that.”
One Republican who did speak in glowing terms about Rep. Fudge was Sen. Rob Portman, who hails from Fudge’s home state of Ohio.
“I’m here just to say that I’m proud that you’re choosing to step up,” Portman told Fudge. “You’re a friend of mine, we work together. You do have a distinguished career and you have worked on housing policy issues throughout your entire public policy career.”
Past HUD secretary confirmations
During recent presidential transitions, the ultimate confirmation of the administration’s first HUD secretary has generally occurred without incident. Upon the elections of Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, their first selections for HUD secretary — Shaun Donovan, Mel Martínez, Henry Cisneros and Jack Kemp, respectively — have largely been confirmed in the Senate by unanimous consent.
In March 2017, President Donald Trump’s HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson was confirmed 58-41 in the Senate, breaking this precedent. It was noted at the time, however, that Democratic opposition to Carson was “weaker” than opposition to some other Trump nominees in other positions, according to the New York Times.
Rep. Fudge’s nomination has not yet been scheduled for a vote by the full Senate, but it’s expected to be soon after leaders of the new majority and minority come to a power sharing agreement. Since the Senate is now split 50-50 after the results of a Georgia runoff election earlier this month, Democrats have control of the chamber due to Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaking vote.