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Remarks of Secretary Julián Castro
2015 Reimagining Cities Conference
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
University of Texas
Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Austin, TX

As prepared for delivery

President Fenves, Mayor Adler, Dean Wilson, faculty, distinguished guests, and members of the HUD team watching online.  It’s a privilege to join you today at the renowned Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.  This isn’t my first time here, but it’s an honor every time I get to visit. 

In particular, I want to thank the students.  Are any Longhorns in the house?  I’d hoped to celebrate UT’s first football victory of the season, but things didn’t work out on Saturday.  As many of you may know, Pope Francis is planning to visit the White House later this month.  Don’t worry, folks. I plan to lodge a formal complaint with him about the Notre Dame football team!

But I have nothing to complain about this afternoon.  I’m very pleased to be here with so many accomplished UT students.  There’s no question that some of Texas’ and our nation’s next great leaders are in this room today. 

Thank you all for welcoming me, for your commitment to public service, and for celebrating this special anniversary this afternoon.

On the night of August 11, 1965—one month before President Lyndon Baines Johnson stepped into the Rose Garden to sign Public Law 89-174 that established the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development—21-year-old Marquette Frye was pulled over by a police officer and arrested for drunk driving.

The stop took place at the corner of 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard, a few blocks from the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles — a community long on obstacles and short on opportunities.  Marquette was black, the officer white.  And as the arrest unfolded, a crowd started building — 25 people, then 300, and after 45 minutes, it had grown to 1,000.  And the crowd brought more than just curiosity to that corner.   

It brought the pain of enduring discrimination.  The sense of hopelessness that comes with joblessness, failing schools and a bleak future.  A belief that the whole system was designed to keep them down.

And on that hot August day, their frustration escalated into anger — and the Watts unrest began.  144 straight hours.  34 people dead.  1,000 injured.  600 buildings damaged.

Now, these were the days before the Internet – before Instagram and Twitter.  Americans didn’t absorb the news on a smartphone, by themselves, riding on a bus or subway.

By the mid-1960s, more than half of America got its news from TV, from newscasters like Walter Cronkite — a onetime UT student I might add. Imagine entire families in living rooms across America watching part of Los Angeles going up in flames.

A Newsweek cover captured the mood of a shocked nation with the headline “Los Angeles: Why?”  But the folks living in Watts didn’t need a headline to alert them to the challenges — they’d spent their lives living with them.  They’d always wondered “why?”   Why did investments go to the suburbs instead of the inner city?  Why did government policies intentionally isolate the poor?  Why weren’t the doors of opportunity open to all Americans? 

Watts revealed a sad truth about the United States in 1965: a nation that was at odds with itself.  The greatest beacon for freedom around the world, yet many of its citizens were oppressed at home.  The richest nation on earth, yet millions of people lived in squalor.  And cities that soared in the post-World War II economy now suffered from growing poverty, aging infrastructure, and a middle class flight that left behind the most vulnerable.

It was clear that the American City needed to be at the top of the national agenda.  It needed a champion, a voice in government. So, 50 years ago today, President Johnson signed the bill creating HUD, the 11th Cabinet agency.  Although the idea was a decade in-the making, HUD came to life out of President Johnson’s vision for a Great Society, his declaration for a War on Poverty, and his belief in government’s power to right wrongs and expand opportunity for all. 

“What the hell’s the presidency for if not to fight for the causes you believe in?” he once told his aides.  He did fight.  And he won.  Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, student aid, Jobs Corps, VISTA, civil rights, voting rights.  Johnson chalked up those victories and more for the American people. 

He even sought to solve problems that weren’t as obvious.  One day, while trying to reach his aide, Joseph Califano, Johnson learned that Califano was at the hospital with his two-year old son who had swallowed a bottle of aspirin.  The President was outraged when he learned about this and said that “these bottles ought to be made so kids can’t open them.”  Soon the Child Safety Act of 1966 was law, which is why all of us now find it a bit more difficult to open our Tylenol. 

President Johnson viewed government as an instrument of good — a belief that’s made a difference in cities and towns across the nation.  The poverty rate is 40 percent lower than in the 1960s.  And generations of Americans have benefited from his efforts — in the classroom, in the workplace, with their health care, and beyond.  And without question, the creation of HUD deserves a place among the Great Society’s most important accomplishments. 

But if President Johnson were here today, I think he’d look at the greatest democracy the world has ever produced and say, “Mr. Secretary, We’ve made progress, but we’re nowhere close to being done.” He’d probably even throw-in a few cuss words for good measure.

He would see what we all see, but don’t like to talk about. He would look outside these doors across I-35 to East Austin. On the one hand, I bet he’d be amazed to see the changing landscape. New apartments next to new restaurants and growing businesses. But President Johnson would also ask the tough questions. What are we doing for the East Austinites who have lived there for generations? Can they afford rising rents? Will they be there to experience the rebirth of their neighborhood?

And I’m not picking on Austin. This contradiction is an American reality today. On the one hand, we're living in a Century of Cities — a time when people are falling in love with cities again. 

The Census Bureau projects that, by 2050, our nation's population will grow by 80 million people, 60 million of whom are likely to live in urban areas.  We view cities as places of possibility — where creativity and culture flow, where ideas and imagination are brought to life.

But today we also face a growing gap between the rich and the poor, between those who have opportunity and those who don’t.  The issues we saw in Watts 50 years ago are still relevant today, as we’ve seen in recent events across the nation. 

Too often, a child’s zip code determines their future.  In fact, a few months ago, I visited Ferguson, Missouri. I heard the most sobering statistic: A child born in the Jeff-Vander-Lou community in zip code 63106 in North St. Louis can expect to live 18 years less than a child born 10 miles away in zip code 63105 in the more affluent Clayton community.

Think about that.

President Obama has said that solving inequality is the “defining challenge of our time”, and our nation must answer this call to action by breaking down the barriers that hold folks down and shut them out, by providing every person with an equal shot at real opportunity, an equal shot at the American Dream. 

And HUD will do its part to level the playing field for all.   

Last week, I had the great honor of introducing former Vice President Walter Mondale, the co-author of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, at a conference at HUD headquarters. For nearly 50 years, working with our partners, we’ve done some good work to punish those who discriminate against others in the housing market because of what they look like, where they come from or who they worship.   

But it’s not enough to wait until after wrongdoing occurs — local communities that get HUD funding are required to use HUD dollars in a way that promotes equal opportunity. 

In the past, that hadn’t happened often enough or in enough cities.  Some local officials chose to invest in certain neighborhoods and not others — often for the wrong reasons.  Many who had good intentions didn’t know where to put their money. And, truth be told, HUD hadn’t overseen this effort with enough consistency or forcefulness. 

Communities remain highly-segregated by race, by national origin, by incomes, and as Dr. King said, as long as there is residential segregation, there will be de facto segregation in every aspect of American life. 

For years and years, folks have worked to change this, often in the face of great resistance.  Try after try.  Delay after delay.  But not anymore. I was proud to look Vice President Mondale in the eye and tell him that in July, HUD finally issued its new rule to ensure that our dollars are used in a way that expands opportunity for every American. 

Announcements are easy.  Implementation is harder.  It won’t be easy.  Despite the unrest we’ve seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, there will be those who call our efforts social engineering. There will be those who say it’s a bureaucratic burden. To them, I simply say: We can’t afford to wait.

America can’t afford another half century of what was, in the most charitable of terms, benign neglect. Our new fair housing rule sends a message loud and clear to our partners: that we’re going to work with you to ensure that you use taxpayer dollars prudently to invest in the housing, the infrastructure, the transit, the schools, the economic development that folks need to build their lives.

And that’s just the beginning.  Our opportunity agenda is guided by three principles designed to ensure that the disinvestment and disappointment that’s marked too much of our nation’s past comes to an end — once and for all.   

The first is that, as we seek to lift up communities and boost upward mobility, we are also breaking through the silos of bureaucracy with a holistic approach.  As President Obama has said, “if poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, we can’t treat those symptoms in isolation.  We have to heal the entire community.”

It’s not just about increasing affordable housing or improving education or enhancing access to transit or sparking job creation. We must do all of those things and more in order to truly improve economic prospects and quality of life in our nation’s most distressed communities.

This approach will be one of the lasting hallmarks of the Obama administration. Sustainable Communities, Choice Neighborhoods, Strong Cities, Strong Communities—through these initiatives and others we’re cutting across bureaucratic lines—HUD, Energy, EPA, Education, Transportation, all working together. We’re also challenging local communities to organize their efforts in the same way.

And this approach is paying off.  I was just in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood where business, government, education, and community leaders are joining together to create a prosperous future for a historically impoverished area.  New housing for low and middle-income families.  New investments in education for children and adults.  New businesses and jobs.  New green spaces and community facilities.

Optimism is rising, opportunity expanding.  And we’re going to keep working with local partners to boost upward mobility and breakdown all the bureaucratic barriers that have hindered progress for far too long.

The second challenge we must address is a more straightforward one, but just as important. We have to measure results better. At HUD, we help put a roof over one’s head. So that’s one victory for the folks we serve, one way to measure success. But as we move forward with a holistic approach, we need to understand more.  In addition to outputs, we must measure outcomes.

How much of a difference do our investments make to increase the high school graduation rate? How many working age residents of public housing or residents within a Promise Zone go back and get their GED or go to college or get technical training that lands them a job or gets them a better one than the one they have now? How much are we reducing the rate of asthma in children or helping increase the life expectancy of the millions of seniors we serve? How much are we reducing the cost to Medicare and Medicaid by providing good, supportive housing for the elderly?

Successfully tracking these outcomes will help us better understand what’s working and improve those programs that don’t work—or eliminate them altogether. In this resource-constrained environment, being able to demonstrate success with strong evidence makes a lot of sense.

At HUD, we’re taking this challenge seriously.  A few years ago, under the leadership of Secretary Shaun Donovan, we launched HUDStat, a tool to gauge our progress.  Today we’re expanding HUDStat to better measure economic, education and quality of life outcomes.  We’re going to invest in what works, change what doesn’t, and improve our own operations to continue improving the lives of the American people.

Third, we must strike a strong balance between, one the one hand, providing low-income families with greater mobility—the option, through housing choice vouchers, giving folks the means to move to higher opportunity neighborhoods within a metro area—and reinvesting in older, distressed neighborhoods on the other.

Where a family lives matters. For example, groundbreaking research by Harvard professor Raj Chetty recently found that children under 13 who moved out of extreme poverty into a better neighborhood went on to earn 31% more than the children who remained.  So we want to get families to higher opportunity neighborhoods.     

And today, over 40 percent of HUD’s budget is dedicated to vouchers. But whenever we speak about mobility, a question rises from the back of the room: What about those families that don’t want to leave their neighborhood? Maybe they’ve lived there for generations.  It’s home to them, part of who they are. Shouldn’t we be doing something for them?

The answer is yes, of course. We can’t and shouldn’t just seek to move everybody out. We can’t forget about these neighborhoods. Through Community Development Block Grants, HOME funds and our place-based efforts, HUD is investing over $4 billion this year to lift up distressed neighborhoods throughout the United States. And we must keep doing so.

Renovating old housing stock and creating new affordable housing. Repairing old infrastructure and investing in public schools. For East Austin and places like it, we ought to improve the neighborhoods for the sake and for the benefit of East Austinites who have long called that neighborhood home—so they can keep living in East Austin. We can do that in East Austin and similar communities and make them inviting to newcomers as well.

Six months before he signed the bill giving life to HUD, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress just days after the Bloody Sunday march in Selma. That night he challenged lawmakers to pass what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In his remarks, he spoke about his own life. He recalled his first job as a young teacher in the small South Texas town of Cotulla. His students were Mexican-American, and they were poor. He said that every day he could see in their eyes the pain of the discrimination they faced, and he asked himself how else he could possibly help them.

“I never thought, then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965,” President Johnson told the American people that night. “It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country,” he said.

The thing is, you don’t have to be a president to make a difference. We all have that chance.

Every day at HUD, more than 8,000 Americans go to work and they make a difference. Because of their work and the work of many others, there are mothers and their children, veterans and seniors, poor and middle class, who have a place to call home tonight. There are young couples who will buy their first home tomorrow morning. And cities—big and small—that will grow stronger because we’re investing in them.

I’m proud that we are the legacy of Lyndon.

And you are too.  Each and every one of you are difference-makers. As public servants, as educators, as activists, as business owners, as journalists, as young men and young women who care about seeing to it that others coming behind you are as blessed with opportunity as you have been—no matter where they live, how much money they have, or the color of their skin.

“But now I do have that chance,” President Johnson continued. “And I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it!”

That is my hope for you—that with your talent, with your intelligence, with the chance you have to make a difference for our country—may you use it.

God bless. Thank you.