By Rev. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood
Our next mayor must repair, rebuild, and reimagine New York City at this time of pain and loss. Shaun Donovan is that leader — I know because I’ve worked with him for nearly three decades. New Yorkers face record unemployment, higher crime, homelessness, racialized displacement, and a debilitating fiscal crisis. Shaun has dedicated his entire career to tackling these challenges and built a remarkable record of progress.
During an earlier time of crisis, I helped rebuild East Brooklyn through Nehemiah’s effort, named for the biblical figure who rebuilt the city of Jerusalem. Shaun worked with us to make Nehemiah one of the most successful housing efforts in the nation, which built about 5,000 affordable homes in Brownsville and East New York, and many more in the South Bronx and other neighborhoods. And when he became New York City’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) Commissioner in 2004, he helped us create a whole community called Nehemiah Spring Creek, with new homes and apartments, schools, shops, and parks.
As HPD Commissioner, Shaun’s innovation and creativity brought together clergy, community leaders, housing advocates, nonprofits and builders, and made him a national pioneer in creating and preserving low-cost housing. His work caught President Obama’s attention, who appointed him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to repair the damage of the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression. In 2014, Shaun was asked to take on a new challenge as Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), making him one of only two people that served all eight years in President Obama’s Cabinet.
Shaun understands how crucial it is to build Black wealth and preserve communities of color. With Nehemiah and other efforts, he supported public housing residents to achieve homeownership because he believes everyone, no matter where they come from or what they look like, should be able to build generational wealth. And when the mortgage crisis began to threaten the savings Black and Brown families had built up in their homes, Shaun created the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, the first effort of its kind in the nation to bring counseling, legal services, and funding to families in need. Ten years later, this initiative promotes and protects affordable homeownership so that working-class families can build thriving communities.
But homeownership isn’t the only challenge threatening communities of color in New York City. Under President Obama, Shaun led the fight against housing discrimination and demanded communities across the country affirmatively further fair housing by dismantling segregation. And just as he did with us in planning and building Nehemiah Spring Creek, Shaun works hand-in-hand with neighborhood leaders and residents to make sure new development and revitalization isn’t something that happens TO a community, but rather WITH and FOR the community.
What’s more, COVID-19 has exacerbated the city’s homelessness problem and pitted New Yorkers against each other. Shaun will fight to eradicate homelessness in New York City and has the track record to get it done. As Obama’s HUD Secretary, he cut homelessness by a quarter nationwide and ended veteran homelessness in more than 100 cities.
Lastly, Shaun knows what it means to lead through the crisis. As HPD Commissioner, he helped communities recover after 9/11. As HUD Secretary, he helped the nation repair the damage after the Great Recession and Katrina. President Obama asked him to lead the effort to rebuild after Sandy devastated New York City and the entire region. And as OMB Director, he helped lead the fight against Ebola and Zika and brought down the deficit faster than any time since World War II.
Decades after we broke ground in East Brooklyn to build Nehemiah, our city faces intertwined health and racial crises that threaten our communities and our economic and fiscal future. At this Nehemiah moment, New York City needs a leader that can help us build back better and stronger than ever. I have faith that Shaun Donovan is the leader we need.
Rev. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood is a senior pastor at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, Brooklyn, New York.