Shelterforce Interview: Ron Sims
HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims doesn’t just want the 8,500 employees he oversees at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to do their jobs: he wants them to challenge themselves, even if there’s a risk of failure.
By Miriam Axel-Lute, Matthew Brian Hersh, and Harold Simon Posted on February 7, 2011
Sims’s unorthodox approach, particularly in a government agency with $44 billion in discretionary budget authority in FY 2010, stems from his time as a three-term county executive for King County in Washington state, the 13th largest county in the country, where he attracted national attention for his work on urban development, affordable housing, transportation, and homelessness, as well as funded nearly 6,000 housing units. Sims brings a new philosophical orientation to HUD that emphasizes both public and private equity, innovation, and long-term sustainability.
*Shelterforce:* _As King County executive in Washington State, you were heavily involved in policy and politics at a regional and local level. How does your time there inform work at HUD?_
*Deputy Secretary Sims:* King County’s a very complex environment. There are 38 cities and we had jurisdiction in cities and out and we had responsibility for how the area would grow. We chose very, very early that we were going to have a sustainable vision, and that would entail trying to increase the densities in the cities.
I used to tell people to “take a risk.” I would sing your praises if you succeed. If you fail and you tried to do something new, I’ll protect you. But if you were inert or cautious, I would try to make it a very challenging day for you. We called ourselves a living lab. So at HUD, I find it’s important to let talent do what talent does best, which is explore new ideas.
And from the policy side, there has to be a standard of livability. What we found was that the high-water mark for African-American homeownership in our region came in 1970, at 50 percent homeownership, with 48 percent having two parents in the household. By 2006, it was 32 percent homeownership and 28 percent two parents in the household. We were seeing similar declines in Latino populations or subgroups of Asians. And urban Native Americans never had a high-water mark.
We could predict life outcomes by zip code. We could say, if you’re in one zip code, you’re likely to have diabetes, you’re going to die of heart disease, and oh, by the way, you will likely get amputations as a method of treatment where another community would get pharmaceutical treatment. We could predict rates of childrens’ tooth decay. In King County in certain zip codes, [of the kids] on subsidized lunch, 28 percent of second graders would have eight active decaying teeth, so they were learning in pain. A zip code should not determine a person’s path in life. Sustainability had to lift all boats or it was a failed exercise in policy.
So we came out with an equity tool [that] we would embed into our comprehensive plans, with the idea that every community would change.
So when I met “Secretary Shaun Donovan”:http://www.shelterforce.org/article/1839/shelterforce_interview_hud_secretary_shaun_donovan/, I was going over the issue of equity tools, densities, integration of transportation—things that he was already thinking about and in fact, was assembling a team of people who believe in sustainability, who had the talent and skills to enable this. So in going to HUD, I saw the possibility of King County on a broader scale.
_And how are you starting to see that philosophy and that culture change play out throughout the agency?_
Everyone accepts sustainability, which is great. I don’t have to argue anymore about health consequences. U.S. Department of Agriculture has a sustainability group that’s now meeting with our sustainability group every single week. The U.S. DOT sustainability group meets every single week with our group and the EPA, all in the same room, all at the same time, working on sustainability issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now coordinating with us on the issue of health impacts in the built environment. Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services and HUD are working jointly on a process of how to end homelessness. Those interagency programmatic silos are dissolving very, very quickly. So we feel the cultural change.
We’re also working toward increasing the delegation of responsibility to our field and regional offices so that they can mirror what’s happening in Washington, D.C. Once that happens, they can be more aggressive than ever before. So the change is occurring.