In recent days, President-Elect Barack Obama has been rapidly naming his nominees for cabinet posts in his administration. That has generated speculation about the jobs he hasn’t filled yet, including the next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for which Obama is said to be considering a candidate list that includes politicians, policymakers, lawyers, and affordable housing experts.

The job will not be an easy one, especially at first, for anyone.

The next secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development may need to evaluate national housing policies that, by supporting homeownership, established an environment of excess in construction and mortgage underwriting that created a housing downturn that many agree now has led the country to an economic precipice.

At the same time, the current housing and credit crises haven’t changed many of HUD’s fundamental challenges to achieve its stated goals to develop communities, enforce fair housing laws, and create suitable living environments for all Americans. And the department must administer a ballooning Federal Housing Administration that is now one of the few consistent sources of mortgage financing for buyers at all levels of credit quality.

Industry watchers told BUILDER this week that they hope the new secretary will address the current problems, both acute and chronic, affecting housing.

David Crowe, chief economist for the NAHB, wants the next HUD secretary to continue to be the housing sector’s liaison and advocate before the President and other cabinet members. “In the current environment, the Secretary needs to aggressively use the tools of FHA and his other offices to address foreclosures and future home buyers.”

“I hope that the new Secretary will be an advocate for cities and for urban regions as a whole,” says John K. McIlwain, Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “We need to shift our thinking from the old pattern of cities versus suburbs and understand that they are all tied together into a holistic urban region. We need to support regional planning and infrastructure development, including tying transportation planning to housing development and land use.”

McIlwain also thinks the next HUD chief must grasp the importance of encouraging mixed-income housing as well as understand the relationship between residential development and its impact on global warming.

Who will be nominated to handle such a job? That remains to be seen. One possible clue: Obama’s Cabinet picks so far haven’t been surprises, with the possible exception of his decision to retain the current Defense Secretary Robert Gates for at least the first year of an Obama administration.

But Obama’s thinking about the next HUD secretary remains opaque, however, given how little he discussed the nation’s housing when he was running for president. That has not changed since he was elected. “We do not comment on appointments before they are made, and we also do not comment on the selection process," Sam Wilson, a spokesperson for Obama's transition team, said in an email to BUILDER.

Some people who have been bandied about as possible nominees, such as Atlanta’s Mayor Shirley Franklin, have said on the record that they aren’t interested in the job. But two names keep cropping up as front-runners:

  • Manny Diaz, a Cuban-American lawyer elected as Miami's mayor in 2001, and who completes his second term next year. Diaz currently serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is credited with resurrecting a bankrupt city government and leading Miami into a resurgent period by attracting major developers, improving city services, and tackling crime. Diaz’s legacy includes Miami21, an ambitious land use and zoning master plan designed in accordance with the principles of New Urbanism and smart growth. He has also pushed for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions via stringent green building codes and other measures.

    “I have not received any formal communications from President-Elect Barack Obama’s team regarding a position in his administration,” Diaz said in his official statement on the matter. “The rumors are just that, rumors and speculation. I remain focused on being Mayor of the City of Miami and completing the projects I started seven years ago. My main concerns are taking care of the needs of Miami’s residents and continue to build a city we are all proud of.”

  • Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a former civil rights activist and member of the House since 1993. With his recent re-election as House majority whip, Clyburn retains a powerful position as the third-ranking member of the House and the highest-ranking African American in Congress. Clyburn made headlines when he told former president Bill Clinton to “chill a little bit” and tone down his rhetoric against Barack Obama during the primary race in South Carolina. Clyburn has denied any interest in serving as HUD secretary.  “He plans to stay in Congress and continue to serve as majority whip for the 111th Congress,” said Christie Greco, a spokeswoman for majority whip’s office.

Other names that are circulating include (in no particular order):

  • Saul Ramirez, Jr., executive director for the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. He served as HUD’s Deputy Secretary from 1998 to January 2001, and its Assistant Secretary of Community Planning and Development from 1997 to 1998. Prior to his tenure at HUD, Ramirez was Mayor of Laredo, Texas, from 1990 to 1997. He’s also worked for Greystone and Co., a financial services and trading company that provides financing for multifamily and economic development projects. Ramirez served as a board member of the Texas Municipal League Inter-government Risk Pool, with more than $300 million in assets.

  • Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and immediate past chairman of the board of directors of Habitat for Humanity International. Despite his current place in the world of academia, Retsinas has deep roots in government service and the housing arena. Before his appointment to Harvard, he served as Assistant Secretary for Housing-Federal Housing Commissioner at HUD and Director of the Office of Thrift Supervision. He also served on the board of the FDIC, the Federal Housing Finance Board, and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation. Retsinas current serves on the board of trustees for the National Housing Endowment and the board of directors for the Center for Responsible Lending, among others. He did not return a call requesting comment.

  • Nelson A. Diaz, a Philadelphia lawyer and former judge currently affiliated with law firm Cozen O’Conner. The first Latino judge in Pennsylvania, he was also the youngest judge ever elected to the Philadelphia Court of Common Please. Diaz emerged on the national scene when President Bill Clinton appointed him HUD’s general counsel, “where he focused on reforming public and mixed-use housing programs,” according to his bio. Diaz spoke publicly as recently as this summer on the current housing situation. At an August 2008 “Connecticut Families in an Ailing Market” summit with housing, banking, and economic experts, Diaz discussed homeowners and subprime mortgage loans. He did not return a call requesting comment.

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