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Creswell Departs HCD After 25 Years of Affordable Housing Advocacy

Josh Stephens on
Mar 6, 2012

If you extrapolate from the current annual under-supply of affordable housing in California, California should have produced 5.5 million units of affordable housing during Cathy Creswell's career at the Department of Housing and Community Development. While the actual number is likely to be somewhat less, the point remains that HCD has faced and continues to face a monumental task. For the past year, that task has ultimately fallen on the shoulders of Creswell, as she has led the department as its interim executive director until stepping down in February. CP&DR caught up with Creswell to discuss the department's evolution and its immediate challenges. 

CreswellWhat are you pleased with, and what, if anything, have you left undone? 

The year as director was a great opportunity to be able to look at the direction of the department and see if we were in a position to serve the housing needs of Californians in the best possible way. The department had, for the last few years since we got Prop. 46 and Prop. 1C, focused on getting that money out in the most efficient and expeditious way possible. We were incredibly successful in doing that. We have allocated virtually all of the Prop 46 bonds, $2.1 billion, and have allocated all but a few hundred million of Prop 1C. 

But in doing so in as quick a manner as we did, there were some things lost in the process in terms of supporting staff to be as effective as possible and maintaining effective relationships with our sponsors, who are actually the ones on the ground doing the work. We've spent the last year looking at how we can improve some our internal processes for loan closings, for working and problem-solving with our sponsors so we can be as supportive as we can in getting those projects into the ground. 

We needed to do some things, and I think we've done that in the past year, to improve our transparency, so that when we make decisions about regulations and how we're going to use the funds, we've established a more robust process of engaging with our stakeholders and getting their input prior to changing a process or regulation. We've made a lot of progress this year, and I'm very pleased with that. 

How has the housing landscape changed in your 25 years at HCD? How has the department changed in that time? 

Housing has had these ups and downs in cycles of high demand and the costs and prices have gone through the roof. When I first started in the late �80s, we were at a peak of housing development. Then there were changes to the tax law and the economy in the �90s and we saw housing conditions and the number of housing units built go down dramatically, particularly in multifamily. We really didn't see an increase again until the beginning of the 2000s. But the housing need  hasn't ever really declined. It just changes. 

Even now, while we have the housing market collapse and housing prices significantly decline, we still have a great many of our population who still cannot afford rent or buy that first-time house. The foreclosure crisis, has actually exacerbated the rental housing problem. Many people who lost their homes are now competing for the limited stock of rental housing.  

The one thing about housing that remains is that it's so dependent on the economy and people's incomes that the need has remained the same. What's changed is our ability to address it. There've been times when the state has been able to invest significant resources in trying to help that segment of the population. The market isn't really designed to help the extremely low income. That's just not the way the market works, so government needs to be there to provide that kind of assistance for the disabled, for homeless folks, and for the working poor. 

There still is a significant resistance to housing development that exacerbates the ability of communities and government to address the needs of people who live there. I've never understood it.  Everybody at some point has had a home. It's the one common bond that we all share. And yet it gets caught up in broader political discussions about, not necessarily, who needs housing but who's going to pay for it and what's the impact on "my" community. 

How will the demise of redevelopment affect HCD's work?

Regardless of whether you thought it was a good thing or not, the loss of redevelopment will have significant impacts both on housing and on communities. The role the department can play is to be focused on some immediate issues. We had a number of projects in the pipeline that had RDA funds. We are working with our sponsors to evaluate the impacts and ensure that they'll be able to maintain that stock for the Californians who need it. 

In terms of the loss of resources, the department has been working for a number of years on identifying a permanent funding source for affordable housing that wouldn't be subject to bonds or the state general fund. The department is working with Cal FHA to evaluate what the options might be. 

The loss of RDA increases the urgency to find an ongoing, permanent source of funding that can assist the market in meeting those needs for everything from the homeless, to rental housing to first-time homebuyers. 

CP&DR did an article several months ago on budget cuts that affected HCD's housing element review staff. How are those cuts playing out and how is the department gearing up for the next wave of housing elements?

It's a continuing issue. Unfortunately, I was not able this year to resolve it. What we worked on and what we are about to embark on is an effort to work with stakeholders on how the department can streamline the housing element review process to reduce the resources needed to administer the law, both for the department and for local governments. There's a recognition, that as much as HDC and the housing policy units have been suffering through budget cutbacks, local governments are having that same issue. 

The department is about to begin an effort to bring together local governments, housing advocates, and the building community to look at a proposal on how we can streamline our review and how housing elements are updated. Staff have been working the past five months on a proposal.  With the amount of staff we currently have, we can continue to review every housing element that is projected to come in and ensure that we can review it in an effective and timely manner. The department is committed to doing that, because not only do we believe that the housing element is critical to ensuring equity and access to safe and affordable housing, but we also believe that the implementation of SB 375 rests strongly on an effective housing plan. If we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reducing VMTs, getting the housing piece right is critical. 

Have you seen the Sustainable Communities Strategies that have recently been produced by SCAG and SANDAG and SACOG and how they handle the housing components? 

We've just started looking at them. We have worked in partnerships and believe that the MPOs have been putting forth good faith effort into trying to meet the challenge that they're facing with the SCS's. We haven't had the opportunity to go through them yet in the kind of depth that we want and plan on doing. But they have been very collaborative with us, and we want to be as helpful as we can to address issues before they become problems. We have gone through the regional Housing Need Allocations for SCAG, SANDAG and SACOG; and we're working on finalizing MTC. I think it's been the most productive and cooperative RHNA process that I've ever seen.

What highlights from that process have caught your attention? 

The more transparent we can be about making sure everybody understands how those numbers are going to be used, the easier it will be for the regions to form an agreement on how those numbers should be distributed. 

There had been for a long time in the statute, a direct link between the regional transportation plan population projections and the population projects that we use. With the amendments that were made with the Housing Element Working Group in 2004, we also made some change to the RHNA to more explicitly focus on what was already happening in the statute and to find  the intent  of the RHNA to equitably distribute the housing need, while also  focusing on efficient and compact land use patterns and to look at jobs-housing balances. While that is the way it had been implemented, it hadn't been explicit in the statute. I think that gives the regions additional support as they are working on implementing SB 375. 

Recently the governor's budget proposed breaking up Business, Transportation, and Housing into separate agencies. How does that move affect housing and the SCS process since it splits up housing and transportation? 

BTH has had all of those agencies together for at least the last 15 years. At different times there was strong collaboration and other times there wasn't. If there's commitment by the administration,(and I think there is) to coordinate transportation, housing, business and environmental policy,,  that'll happen. 

From a housing perspective, there is a symbolic loss in not having housing listed as? an agency. That can send a signal that  is not one that I think this administration necessarily wants to be sending. I believe that this administration is very committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and doing high speed rail - all of which gets to the same place of promoting more effective land use patterns which housing will benefit from. HCD has been continuing to draw the link between housing,  the economy and the environment. If we want to address and fix the environment and  greenhouse gas emissions�.we have to get housing done in the right places and affordably. 

What is your next move professionally? 

I'm taking some time off to decompress and I'm evaluating what my options are. I know I will be staying involved with housing back in Grand Rapids, Michigan.1978 is when I first realized how critical housing was in serving  families in those neighborhoods and I believe, with every fiber of my being, that everybody in the state and in this country deserves safe and affordable housing.I'm going to make sure that I am always in a position to fight for these ideals. 

It has been such as privilege, for the last 25 years to be in a position to, hopefully, make a difference up and down the state. I think that housing element law has really created opportunities where, otherwise, there might not have been. I think there are people housed today that wouldn't be, but for housing element law. I am proud of the role I have played in that.