Todman and Massimino discuss the role of faith-based communities in broader efforts to promote justice in housing.


Justice in Housing: A Conversation with HUD Deputy Secretary Adrianne Todman

By: Siobhan Cooney

February 28, 2023

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to pursue a comprehensive plan to end homelessness, prioritizing measures such as affordable housing, easing of rental prices, and improved financing opportunities for home construction and purchases. Georgetown University welcomed Adrianne Todman, the twelfth deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for a February 7 conversation to shed light on how HUD is turning this vision into a reality.

“Underlying these policies is the commitment to a fundamental principle that housing is a human right, an essential element for a life of security and dignity,” said William Treanor, executive vice president and dean of Georgetown Law, in his welcome address to event attendees.

Following her remarks, Deputy Secretary Todman joined Elisa Massimino, a Berkley Center senior research fellow and executive director of the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown Law, for further discussion of HUD’s efforts and what still needs to be done to achieve justice in housing.

This event was co-sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown Law, and the Racial Justice Institute at Georgetown University.

Starting in Small Places, Close to Home

In introducing Deputy Secretary Todman, Massimino expanded on typical understandings of human rights by focusing the lens on the local and personal level.

“People often think about human rights as something to do with the struggle for freedom and dignity in other countries, but that misses the essential wisdom and power of the idea that respect for the inherent dignity of every individual and protection of their human rights begins, as Eleanor Roosevelt said once, in small places, close to home.”

Indeed, the deputy secretary’s career has been dedicated to housing justice and dignity, improving people’s lives and strengthening neighborhoods not just to build up thriving communities, but individual homes as well. Todman shared that she derives her passion and sense of purpose from coming from a home where she felt safe and loved.

The discussion of the scope of homelessness in the United States revealed a mosaic of other deeply entrenched social issues. Massimino and Todman examined how the intersections between climate change, racism, and housing insecurity manifest during disaster recovery work, something that continues to impact small places close to home everywhere across the United States.

During the early emergency stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, HUD saved nearly two million Americans from losing their homes through a diverse array of programs, including mortgage debt restructuring. The department’s discreet, real-time ability to help during natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, Todman said, has resulted from HUD centering their work on those who aren’t able to bounce back as quickly, which disproportionately has been people of color.

“We need to make sure that the Black people, the brown people, the people of color who are impacted by these storms, who may have had to travel away, are able to not just come back, but have an opportunity to stay and be more resilient in the place that they live.”

Faith-Based Community Engagement

Massimino highlighted this conversation as part of the Berkley Center’s program on Rethinking Religion and Human Rights, whose goal is to find ways for communities of faith to engage positively in challenging human rights violations.

“We were delighted to host Deputy Secretary Todman to hear how the administration is enacting housing policy reforms in a way that protects human dignity, an important human rights goal for many religious communities here and abroad,” said Michael Kessler, executive director of the Berkley Center and co-leader of the Rethinking Religion and Human Rights program.

According to Todman, faith-based opportunities are integral to HUD’s work to promote justice in housing.

“There is a whole piece of our body of work focused on teaching faith-based leaders that if they have access to land, they have the ability to really actualize their housing justice work.”

The deputy secretary then summarized the work of HUD’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an office that stewards relations with local faith-based leadership and fosters interactivity between HUD programming and religious organizations’ own local goals.

“If we’re going to look at housing justice as a way for people to have promise and hope in the future, other vessels of promise and hope tend to be people who exercise their faith, whether it be in a cathedral, synagogue, or mosque.”

Clarity of Vision

For Todman, a crucial component to HUD’s work is interdepartmental collaboration within the government, such as the Departments of Agriculture, Treasury, and Health and Human Services.

“We’re making sure that while we are helping solve some of their homeless crisis issues, that there are other parts of the federal family that are helping with some of the service issues as well.”

Todman explained how this kind of synergy proved especially effective in a partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which was able to reduce veteran homelessness by 50% from 2010 to 2020. It also comes across in other initiatives such as HUD’s proposed Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which would hold HUD funding grantees accountable for addressing and removing barriers in their own localities.

Creating such clarity of vision across government leadership allows HUD and all of its partners to become better aligned and more intentional in the pursuit of justice in housing, something that Deputy Secretary Todman says is achievable house by house, community by community. Her personal charge is to give every child a home that nurtures their confidence for a better future.

“Without justice in housing, we cannot truly carry out our mission to ensure that everyone in this country can live with what I call, just the basic hope that you are able to help the next generation behind you.”

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