The sky-high cost of housing along much of the Front Range can put just about any household's budget to the test, and that's exponentially so for the region's poorest residents.
Enter Evelyn Lim.
Sworn in earlier this year as the Denver-based administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Rocky Mountain Region, Lim has the mission of providing housing — and a lot more — to those of very modest means. And as part of the Trump administration, she sees herself carrying out that mission with a renewed emphasis on leading the poor toward self-sufficiency.
As she tells us in today's Q&A, "...we’ve gone beyond just providing a roof over someone’s head, to providing services and programs that are designed to end the cycle of generational poverty and provide opportunities for more social mobility."
Lim also expands on some of her department's initiatives that, under this administration, are intended to encourage the creation of more affordable housing in general. And, reflecting on what so far has been a wide-ranging career path, she recaps the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and she talks about her time working for the U.S. ambassador to Finland — where the people, she explains, are said to be among the happiest anywhere.
Colorado Politics: Denver probably offers as good a test case as any city in the country for the president’s recent executive order targeting barriers to affordable housing. Rents and median home prices have soared in the Mile High City to among the highest anywhere in the nation’s interior.
The executive order’s premise is that a major driver of the cost spiral is simply a lack of supply to meet demand — and that the way to stimulate supply is to lower local, state and federal policy hurdles that hinder new construction. That’s a turnabout from the conventional approach in cities like Denver, where, among other policies, developers have been required to include affordable housing units in residential projects or to pay into an affordable-housing fund.
It’s a choice of more government vs. less. Why do you believe less government will succeed where the more conventional approach — more mandates on the industry — seems to fall short?
Evelyn Lim: The executive order the president signed in June is focused on reducing barriers and tasks the relevant federal agencies with two things: one, working with state and local governments to identify policies and regulations that artificially increase the cost of developing affordable housing, and two, reducing the federal regulatory burden that discourages investment and housing development. So within the federal government we are also looking at our own policies to eliminate any bureaucratic red tape that inhibits development.
Deregulation has spurred growth and innovation across the economy and it can work in housing. Research shows that more than 25% of the cost of a new home is the direct result of federal, state, and local regulations. It’s a large reason why the construction of new homes has not kept pace with the formation of new households.
Census Bureau data indicates that from 2010 to 2016, only seven homes were built for every 10 households formed. Americans have fewer housing opportunities, and the lack of supply means that for many, the cost of buying a home is just too high; that’s certainly been the case here in Colorado. Mandates and additional development fees don’t have a good track record of spurring affordable housing development. Other cities where they’ve had similar policies have yet to succeed in making their communities affordable.
In Colorado we need to add new homes to our current stock to help address the affordability issue. In Denver, we see housing being built for very low- and low-income individuals as well as luxury housing but nothing in the middle market. These types of fees just add additional barriers to the cost of building, which inhibits development across all price levels.
- Rocky Mountain regional administrator, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, since February; based in Denver.
- Deputy chief of staff, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2018-2019.
- Director of operations, Colorado Concern, 2016-2018.
- Served as chief executive officer for the Ware Family Office in Denver from 2008 to 2015.
- Was senior executive officer and personal aide to the U.S. ambassador to Finland, in Helsinki, 2007-2008.
CP: What are some other endeavors of your office that might represent a change of pace from the way HUD has done business under previous administrations?
Lim: Over the years, HUD has attempted to blend housing assistance with a variety of support services to improve the economic well-being of HUD-assisted individuals. In this administration, under the leadership of Secretary [Ben] Carson, we are seeing a concerted commitment to expanding and improving these self-sufficiency programs across the nation.
At HUD we’ve had success with programs that provide various mechanisms for individuals to become self-sufficient. In other words, we’ve gone beyond just providing a roof over someone’s head, to providing services and programs that are designed to end the cycle of generational poverty and provide opportunities for more social mobility.
At HUD, we are looking at ways to increase and promote self-sufficiency by removing incentives to stay on public assistance. For example, new rent proposals would assess incomes every three years instead of one. Right now, if you start making more money or bring an income-producing person into your home, your rent increases almost immediately. Why would anyone want to work toward a promotion or raise with such a perverse outcome?
By assessing income every three years, it allows for various swings in employment or allows people to save and have more stability before raising their rent contribution. These rent proposals, by the way, don’t affect the elderly or disabled, which was misunderstood by some when the proposals were announced.
We are also looking at expanding the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which increases public-private partnerships to renovate dilapidated public housing structures with private funds. We’ve proposed to accelerate the program, which has a cap on the number of units to renovate, by removing the cap entirely. We’ve seen across the region the benefit of using the RAD program to rehabilitate public housing with beautiful results. With these new units being built under RAD, you often can’t tell the difference between market-rate and affordable units, which makes a big difference to not only the people living in these properties, but the overall community as well.
CP: Tell us about another initiative of this administration — EnVision Centers that are intended to foster self-sufficiency among HUD-assisted families. How does that program work, and what potential does it hold for a place like Colorado?
Lim: The EnVision Center initiative is one of the most exciting programs brought forward by Secretary Carson. The program is still in demonstration phase but we recently expanded the original demonstration and are actively looking for partners who share our ideals of self-sufficiency. The EnVision Center demonstration offers HUD-assisted families access to support services that can help empower them to achieve long lasting self-sufficiency.
Many of our self-sufficiency programs at HUD are premised on the idea that financial support alone is insufficient to solve the problem of poverty. EnVision Centers will provide communities with a centralized hub for support in the following four pillars: (1) economic empowerment, (2) educational advancement, (3) health and wellness, and (4) character and leadership.
Programs and services offered at EnVision Centers promote these four pillars and are tailored for the community in which they are located. We leverage public-private partnerships with federal agencies, state and local governments, non-profits, foundations, faith-based organizations, corporations, public housing authorities and others to provide location-based services at EnVision Centers. By co-locating services we can more effectively help low-income Americans as well as leverage programs to be more efficient.
In our region, we have one EnVision Center in Grand Forks, ND which was part of the original demonstration phase. I think there’s great potential for EnVision Centers in Colorado where we already have so many partners who provide these services. By providing services in a designated space that is accessible to HUD assisted families, we make it easier to access these great programs. Additionally, in places like the western slope or San Luis Valley, for example, where communities are farther apart, we are looking at ways to make the EnVision Center mobile and take services to our families.
CP: Though you aren’t from Colorado, you have a background on the Front Range and some experience working in the area’s politics and policy circles, having served as an exec with the influential business-advocacy group Colorado Concern earlier in your career. What distinguishes Colorado’s political culture — the way coalitions are built; the way consensus is achieved; the way policies are hammered out — from other places you’ve worked?
Lim: I was born and raised in Chicago and surrounding suburbs, where you have a lot of political homogeneity. And then I lived for several years in Washington, D.C., where I never felt there was a local political culture because it was all national. I’ve been in Colorado for 10 years now and I don’t know if I’ve quite figured it out!
In Colorado, leaders must balance the needs of both urban centers like Denver and rural localities because of the large diversity in the state. It’s one aspect that I’m very conscious of in my current role at HUD. In implementing policies and programs within the region, I remind my colleagues in other states, and in particular those in Washington, D.C., that there’s no one-size-fits-all to policies, especially when you are dealing with Colorado.
We have a unique region and in many ways, Colorado is unique even within the region because we have such a large, and fast-growing metropolitan city surrounded by smaller urban areas and then rural communities. With the fast-growing population in Denver, we are seeing a lot of changes and corresponding change in Colorado’s political attitudes and culture. We are lucky to have many community and nonprofits leaders who have thrived at finding ways to work together for common-sense and practical solutions to some of the challenges we face.
CP: You worked for the U.S. ambassador to Finland and lived in Helsinki. Finland is known for their education system, health care system — and being the happiest country in the world. What are things you learned from living in Finland?
Lim: I lived in Finland in 2007-2008 while the country was still most famous for heavy metal and Nokia; and even then, most people didn’t know their Nokia phone was from a Finnish company. Since then they’ve had Angry Birds and Clash of Clans! They were known for their excellence in education before they were ranked in the annual happiness report. That’s not to say that Finns weren’t happy, just that this was before they received international attention for this type of ranking.
I think there’s a lot to learn from other countries and cultures although I do believe that many policy decisions made in Finland are difficult to duplicate here in the United States where the population is much larger (Finland’s population is about 5.5 million) and much more diverse.
On a personal level, one thing I learned in Finland was the value of punctuality. If an event started at 12 p.m., then it started at 12 p.m. and, in fact, you should be ready to receive guests at 11:45 a.m. so the event can start on time. It’s considered rude to be late because you aren’t respecting other people’s time. As a result, things operate on time, like public transportation, and it’s easy to be efficient when everything around you is efficient.
CP: You put in two different stints with the Department of Homeland Security. The department was created in the aftermath of 911, in response to what had arguably become a more dangerous world for the United States. But there also are those who say this newest addition to the presidential Cabinet represents the timeless trade-off between liberty and security, ceding some of the former for more of the latter. It also expanded the federal bureaucracy, perhaps ironically, under a Republican administration. Give us your elevator speech for why America needs DHS.
Lim: A unified department with a single mission can better coordinate efforts to protect the American people and eliminate redundant and duplicative activities as well as close gaps to anticipate unknown threats of tomorrow. In order to respond to changing conditions and emerging threats, the DHS secretary needs latitude and authority to deploy human and financial resources. This authority and latitude doesn’t exist in a White House advisory role.
I think it’s worthwhile to point out that the Bush administration didn’t immediately sign onto the concept of a new cabinet agency. The Transportation Security Administration was created immediately in the aftermath of Sept. 11; the Aviation and Transportation Security Act was signed into law in November 2001, and the Homeland Security Act which created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and transferred TSA to DHS was enacted over a year later in November 2002 (DHS officially opened its doors in March 2003).
Originally the Bush Administration did not believe the creation of another cabinet agency was needed and created the White House Homeland Security Council and Office of Homeland Security, led by Tom Ridge (who later became the first DHS secretary), instead to coordinate the multiple federal agencies that had security missions. However, that model proved less effective in aligning programs across the federal government. Instead, a single, unified agency was needed whose primary mission it was to protect the American homeland.
DHS is now 16 years old and the third-largest cabinet agency. It has a huge mission and dedicated personnel, and I was very privileged to work there at its first days and help set the foundation and security policies we still rely on today.
CP: What would be your dream job?
Lim: Being able to help people and improve our community through public service has been the privilege of a lifetime. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that in several different capacities throughout my career. But if I were a little better at math and science, I would have become an astronaut!