Bob Woodson, Veteran Leader on Community-Based Solutions to Youth Violence, in the Mix for HUD Secretary

Robert Woodson, Sr., the founder and longtime president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, told The Washington Post that he had discussed the possibility of serving as Housing and Urban Development (HUD ) secretary in the administration of President-Elect Donald Trump.

“Yes, we’re talking about HUD,” Woodson told the Post’s Robert Costa, after he met with Trump over the weekend.

Woodson is a conservative African-American leader who founded CNE in 1981. He has long favored an approach to community development that favors placing direct control in the hands of community leaders and programs. The center is perhaps best known for its Violence-Free Zone (VFZ), a school-based model that employs a mix of mentoring services, youth development programs and young adult “advisors” who work full-time in area schools.

A Baylor University evaluation of the model in Milwaukee and Richmond, Va., found significant improvement in academic performance and lower rates of behavioral incidents and suspensions. At a 2009 Congressional hearing about youth violence, Woodson testified about other results:

  • At one Richmond high school, arrests of students dropped 38 percent and there was a 73 percent drop in motor vehicle thefts that Woodson said police had attributed to VFZ helping keep kids in school.
  • In Dallas, Woodson said, one high school recorded 133 gang incidents before bringing in VFZ and zero the following year.

Woodson’s presence in the early formation of Trump’s domestic policy plans is not surprising. For starters, Woodson is a counselor to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and helped Ryan develop his Better Way agenda. Woodson was also influential in the early days of the George W. Bush administration as the president developed what would become his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. And before that, Woodson served as an advisor to Jack Kemp when he was HUD Secretary for the elder President Bush.

Violence prevention is not a classic component of HUD, which is currently helmed by former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. There is some history of services to address domestic violence, but HUD has not been a major player addressing community violence issues.

But HUD does have a few existing levers at Woodson’s disposal were he to seek a more prominent role for violence prevention strategies at the department. There is the Community Development Block Grant, a 42-year-old program that distributes grants to states and cities to address “a wide range of unique community development needs.”

There is also the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an outpost established at relevant domestic agencies during the construction of Dubya’s faith-based agenda.

And more important than either of those established programs is that the president-elect is not likely to care much what traditionally happens at agencies. In the presidential debates, Trump repeatedly painted inner cities as communities besieged by violent behavior, and HUD is an agency with direct and influential connection to cities. Youth Services Insider could absolutely see the logic in Trump tasking Woodson with leading violence prevention from the HUD office.

If that is the case, Woodson might find an ally among the Democrats in Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the man who held the 2009 hearing where Woodson testified. Scott has, for about a decade now, pushed a bill called the PROMISE Act that would provide federal support to high-risk communities to craft, implement and then evaluate violence prevention strategies.

Scott is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is likely to be chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.). That committee has traditionally held sway on the House’s juvenile justice portfolio, but largely within the scope of the Departments of Justice and Education.

Could a HUD-tailored PROMISE Act be fashioned? If Ryan is supportive, the only obstacle would be objection in the Senate.

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