#CNU18 CNU's other rock star: HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan brings them to their feet

David Byrne, move over. There's room for more than one rock star at this Congress. US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan brought his listeners to their feet for not one but two standing ovations Friday morning - at an hour when the Congress that's Not Up yet isn't usually in session.

Donovan sketched a bold vision for the "geography of opportunity" in American cities, the creation of which he called "the unfinished business of the civil rights movement."

Among the goals:
1. "Location-efficient mortgages" and a system of scoring mortgage applications that fairly estimates the implicit transportation costs of living at a given location.
2. Changes in FHA insurance to make it easier for developers to include more commercial activity (mixed use) in the projects the FHA supports.
3. A holistic approach to cities, through the Office of Sustainable Communities, launched in February, a collaboration with the federal departments of transportation and energy and the EPA.

The nation's 15th HUD secretary was formerly the New York City commissioner of housing, preservation, and development, and before that a member of the Clinton administration, where he concentrated on multifamily housing at HUD, and helped 1.7 million families into new homes.

Before that, however, he was an architecture student hoping to make a career of designing affordable housing. Looking around him, though, he saw a need for a change in plan. He realized that architects were "complicit" in the system that had razed neighborhoods and entrenched whole generations in poverty in the name of "urban renewal." He ended up seeking a degree in public policy instead and making his way in public service.

In his speech to CNU 18, he in effect welcomed architects and planners back into the realm of public service, from which so many had withdrawn. And he hailed a new federal approach to cities.

"You and I both know that for years the federal government has perpetuated sprawl" by building highways and supporting the system that trapped people into "drive till you qualify" mortgages. "They found themselves driving dozens of miles and spending nearly as much to fill their gas tank as to pay their mortgage."

As he heads back to Washington, he's got to be hoping that the other Congress he has to deal with - the sometimes cantankerous one that meets in the US Capitol - is half as responsive to him as CNU 18 was.


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