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Former HUD Secretary On Biden's Plan To Address Racial Inequality Through Housing


In his first week in office, President Biden made a point to take action on racial discrimination in housing. He issued an executive order directing his team to review a rule put in place by the Trump administration, a rule that had in turn repealed an Obama-era regulation - so a lot of twists and turns here. Here to help us understand what can be done to improve access to housing for all Americans is Shaun Donovan. He was secretary of Housing and Urban Development during Obama's first term in office.

Shaun Donovan, welcome.

SHAUN DONOVAN: Mary Louise, it's great to be with you again.

KELLY: Let's start with the news. What is your read on this move by President Biden? What does this new executive order actually do?

DONOVAN: President Biden made a very forceful statement and I think really targeted exactly where we need to go. Housing is at the root of so many issues around racial inequity in this country because - think about it. When you choose a place to live, you choose where your kids go to school. You choose access to jobs. You choose access to health care, as we've seen in this pandemic. And so when we're targeting housing and making it more fair, we're actually starting to make the American dream real again by saying everyone should have a chance at opportunity.

KELLY: And when you say this new order is forceful, be specific. What will it actually do?

DONOVAN: When I led HUD for President Obama, we focused on making the Fair Housing Act of 1968 real to give it real teeth. And specifically, we did two things. The first is called disparate impact. And why disparate impact is important is because it says that you don't have to be intentionally discriminating to be held accountable for changing a practice that's discriminatory.

The second is what we call affirmatively furthering fair housing. And what that says is that it isn't just enough to stop active discrimination. The responsibility, if you take federal money, is to actually go farther than that and reverse, undo, the legacy impacts of discrimination. I think Congresswoman Fudge in her confirmation hearing put it very well.

KELLY: This is Marcia Fudge, who is Biden's nominee.

DONOVAN: Exactly. She said in her confirmation hearing that just getting rid of discrimination today would be like starting a race but giving one person in that race a head start.

KELLY: I do want to note and let you respond to - the Trump administration argued, hey, we're in favor of fairness in housing, but the way that the Obama team went about it was the wrong way. We heard President Trump complain repeatedly that if you mandate low-income housing, it would destroy the suburbs and so on. Do you think anything in the Trump legacy on this is worth preserving?

DONOVAN: I don't. The attacks that we heard Donald Trump make on these rules specifically, on my work - I take this personally - that it was destroying the suburbs, was very similar to what we heard Ben Carson say in the presidential campaign in 2016. He said this is social engineering. And we have to really focus on the fact that that is completely ignoring the history of the United States and how we ended up with segregated neighborhoods in the first place. We know that segregation and racial inequity were created by the government - federal mortgages that explicitly said you were not allowed to sell your house to a person of color. That is how we constructed racial segregation. We need to make sure that those who have started behind in the race are given a chance to catch up. And that's why we need to make sure that this is an active role that the federal government is taking.

KELLY: What do you see as the biggest challenge - I guess the biggest immediate challenge for Marcia Fudge if she is confirmed as the next HUD secretary?

DONOVAN: We know that more than a third of Americans were having trouble just meeting the rent because of widespread joblessness, loss of wages, the deep impacts of COVID. And so job one has to be keeping folks in their homes and getting $25 billion in rental assistance that was just passed by Congress out into people's hands so that they can stay in their homes and don't end up on the streets.

KELLY: Shaun Donovan - he was Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Obama. He is now running for mayor of New York, and we reached him today in Brooklyn.

Secretary Donovan, thank you.

DONOVAN: Thank you, Mary Louise. It's great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.