HUD chief Julián Castro faces critics at JFK Library Forum

HUD Secretary Julián Castro: At left: Moderator Renee Loth. Photo by Tom Fitzsimmons/JFK LibraryHUD Secretary Julián Castro: At left: Moderator Renee Loth. Photo by Tom Fitzsimmons/JFK LibraryA large crowd packed the JFK Library’s Stephen Smith room on Tuesday evening for a public forum featuring Julián Castro, the 41-year-old Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The former mayor of San Antonio is seen as a potential vice-presidential ticket mate for Hillary Clinton, who moved closer to securing the Democratic nomination with her decisive primary victory in New York that same night.

For the record, Boston Globe columnist Renee Loth, who moderated the forum quite ably — probed the first-generation Mexican-American who graduated Harvard Law on his political ambitions. He deftly demurred.

The most interesting moments of the evening came when Castro was challenged from the floor by activists who sought to pin him down on the HUD-enabled evictions of families struggling through foreclosure proceedings. A few protestors briefly interrupted Loth’s questioning of Castro to interject their own statements, urging Castro to halt evictions. Later in the program, an attorney who works with people facing evictions urged Castro to meet face-to-face with the advocates. The secretary said he would.

Others held up a sign urging Castro to “stop selling our homes to Wall Street!”— a reference to HUD’s continued practice of selling troubled loans to large investors who then evict the tenants and former homeowners. Castro, who was largely cool and constructive in his remarks, bristled a bit at the “sloganeering”— as he put it— warning that liberals would have to be more nuanced in their approach to solving such a complicated problem. Castro, it must be noted, did not offer much in the way of concrete solutions to the problem in his Dorchester appearance.

Congress, he noted, was unlikely to support President Obama’s latest budget proposal for HUD that includes $11.3 billion in new spending, much of it targeted for affordable housing, including rental assistance vouchers that are key to supporting vulnerable families in high-priced cities like Boston. The president, he said, has made it a goal to wipe out homelessness for families with kids by 2020. It’s a noble goal, yet Castro had to acknowledge that while the budget proposal “sent a message” about the administration’s intentions, it’s not likely to pass muster in an obstructionist, Republican Congress.

There is no denying that the policy goals of the administration are severely hamstrung by a funding shortfall and the dysfunction in Washington in general. True though it may be, it remains deeply unsatisfying to tell real people facing real life displacement that their administration has not considered factoring in the impact that prior evictions can have on people trying to find affordable housing options— something that Castro admitted to moderator Loth. Or that there are just not enough non-profits or local government agencies who can offer people on the bubble a bridge out of foreclosure.

Castro would do well to listen more to our US Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Congressman Mike Capuano, who has called on HUD to stop selling at-risk or delinquent federal home loans to private firms who then quickly and callously put families on the streets. As the stories on the news pages of this week’s Reporter suggest, people in our community are desperate for leadership in this arena.

Our federal government can, and should, do better when it comes to keeping people in their homes.