Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Who is Shaun Donovan?

Thursday, December 25, 2008
In selecting Shaun Donovan to take over the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), one of the federal government’s most consistently embattled agencies, Barack Obama has tabbed something of a housing “whiz kid.” Donovan, 42, is no stranger to HUD and has a national reputation for curtailing low-income foreclosures, developing affordable housing and managing the nation’s largest urban housing plan.
 
Donovan was born January 24, 1966, in New York. Manhattan was Donovan’s playground while growing up as a kid who loved math and science, ran track, built model cars and contemplated car design as a career. He attended the Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and played on the school bridge team.  Notable Dalton alumni include Anderson Cooper, Christian Slater and Chevy Chase. Donovan received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard. He has a BA in engineering (1987), an MA in architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard (1995), and a Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government (1995). It was during his studies at the Kennedy School that he fell in love with the housing issue, becoming a public sector junkie.
 
Following graduation, Donovan worked as an architect in New York and Italy. He then researched and wrote about housing policy at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, and later worked at the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) in New York City, a non-profit lender and developer of affordable housing. 
 
In October 1998, he joined HUD as a special assistant, and by March 2000, was elevated to Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing. In this role, he functioned as the primary federal official responsible for privately-owned multifamily housing, running housing subsidy programs that provided more than $9 billion annually to 1.7 million families and oversaw a portfolio of 30,000 multifamily properties with more than 2 million housing units. During the closing days of the Clinton administration, Donovan served as acting commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) during the presidential transition.
 
After leaving Washington, DC, Donovan became a visiting scholar at New York University, where he researched and wrote about the preservation of federally-assisted housing. During the same time, he worked as a consultant to the Millennial Housing Commission on strategies for increasing the production of multifamily housing.
 
In July 2002, Donovan became managing director of FHA lending and affordable housing investments at Prudential Mortgage Capital Company. In the affordable housing arena, Prudential’s portfolio totaled more than $1.5 billion in debt, including Fannie Mae, FHA and other loan types.
 
Donovan’s first big career challenge came in March 2004 when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose him to be commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). An agency with a $1 billion budget and 2,700 employees, HPD toughest task during Donovan’s tenure has been the $7.5 Billion New Housing Marketplace plan to build and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing for 500,000 New Yorkers.
 
While running NYC’s housing program, Donovan was credited with convincing the Bloomberg administration to embrace the idea of inclusionary zoning, under which developers agree to set aside a part of their projects for lower-income people in return for being allowed to build at greater density. The administration’s embrace of that idea helped win public support for the rezoning of several large, formerly industrial areas expected to produce 8,500 new low-cost units over the next 10 years.
 
Donovan was also the key to creating the $200 million New York City Acquisition Fund, which the city, seven major foundations and financial institutions helped finance. The fund is designed to help small local developers and nonprofit groups compete for land in the private market, and it is expected to serve as a catalyst for the production and preservation of 30,000 low-cost apartments during the next decade.
 
Donovan first made good with Obama when he took a leave of absence from his New York commissioner job to campaign for the Illinois Democrat. While Donovan has encountered conservative critics who differed with his strategies for tackling the affordable housing problem in New York, few have questioned his brains or qualifications for taking on large-scale challenges. His sister, Justine, a psychiatrist, has described Donovan as a “malignant optimist.”
 
Donovan will need no short supply of optimism if he becomes the next HUD secretary. The Federal Reserve estimates that lenders are on track to initiate 2.25 million foreclosures in 2008, more than doubling the annual pace before the current housing crisis began. In addition, falling housing values and a plunging stock market contributed to $2.8 trillion in lost household wealth in just the third quarter of this year.
 

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