Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge has a huge job ahead of her, if she's confirmed as the nation's 18th secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Judging from a largely positive hearing Thursday before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, she appears headed for approval.
Fudge was picked by President Biden to lead the agency as the nation faces a severe housing crisis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn. Millions of Americans are facing eviction, affordable housing is in short supply, homelessness appears to be on the rise, and racial inequities have widened.
"My first priority as secretary would be to alleviate that crisis and get people the support they need to come back from the edge," Fudge told the committee. She noted that 1 in 5 renters and 1 in 10 homeowners are currently behind on their housing payments.
Fudge said that $25 billion in emergency rental assistance recently approved by Congress is "not enough." She endorsed the new administration's proposals to provide $25 billion more in rental aid in a new COVID relief package, to expand the use of housing vouchers and to enforce laws aimed at preventing housing discrimination.
"These problems are urgent, but they are not beyond our capacity to solve," she said.
But Biden's plans, which have broad Democratic support, already face opposition from Republicans who say they're concerned about excessive government spending and imposing costly regulations on developers, landlords and communities.
Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., noted that Congress approved the initial wave of rental assistance only a few weeks ago and the money has yet to be distributed.
"Now we're being told that we need to do even more right away," he said. "I think anything we do now should be narrowly targeted to the people who actually need the help, rather than universal spending programs that inevitably will spend a huge amount of money on people who never experienced any economic hardship."
Toomey also raised one concern Republicans have with Fudge, an outspoken progressive Democrat and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. He quoted her as saying last year that Republicans do not care "even a little bit" about people of color and that those rushing to fill Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat were "a disgrace to the nation" and had "no integrity."
"This raises questions about your willingness and ability to work with Republicans, if this is your opinion," Toomey said.
Fudge responded that she has a reputation for bipartisanship and working across the aisle.
"Yes, I listen to my constituents and sometime I am a little passionate about things," she said. "Is my tone pitch perfect all the time? It is not. But I do know this, that I have the ability and the capacity to work with Republicans, and I intend to do just that, and that is my commitment to you."
Indeed, Fudge's nomination has been applauded by some Republicans, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who told the committee that his experience is that Fudge does work "collaboratively across party lines."
Those skills could prove crucial. If confirmed, Fudge would not only have to deal with spending controversies but also differences over how to address the current housing crisis. While many housing advocates hope Congress extends a current moratorium on evictions, landlords and others oppose such steps, saying they could push financially strapped landlords out of the market, further exacerbating the affordable housing shortage.
Fudge has limited housing experience, but told senators she dealt with such issues as mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio — a suburb of Cleveland — before she was elected to Congress in 2008. She has spent much of her congressional career helping low-income and disadvantaged families and providing food aid for the poor.
Diane Yentel of the National Low Income Housing Coalition tells NPR she thinks Fudge will do a good job at HUD because she is known as a strong leader and a fighter.
"One of the things that HUD has lacked over the last four years is somebody at the helm willing to make the case for and fight for really significant funding for its programs, and I do think Marcia Fudge will fight for what HUD needs," Yentel said.
She said this will be a welcome change after the last administration pushed for drastic cuts in federal housing programs.
Yentel also does not see Fudge's lack of housing expertise as a big disadvantage. The new administration has already started to hire housing policy experts to fill positions at the agency, which lost many long-time employees during the Trump administration.