Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget: Who Is Shaun Donovan?

Monday, July 14, 2014

On June 2, 2014, President Barack Obama nominated Shaun Donovan, who had served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) since the start of the administration, to be its director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He was confirmed by the Senate on July 10 by a vote of 75-22.


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 has said that his earliest interest in housing came while at Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series. Nearby, in the South Bronx, an uncontrolled fire was burning. ABC announcer Howard Cosell famously told his audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” According to Donovan, the image of urban decay in that New York borough stayed with him.


He attended the Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and played on the school bridge team.  Other 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 of 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, 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’s toughest task during Donovan’s tenure was 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.


Upon Obama’s election, Donovan was nominated to be the new HUD secretary. His confirmation went smoothly, but what followed was rocky: The nation was plunging into the depths of recession, led by a steep decline in housing values. Donovan was Obama’s point man on efforts to mitigate the crisis.


Donovan took heat in some quarters for wanting to help homeowners, with critics concerned with the “moral hazard” of assisting those in need. However, Donovan, along with the Department of Justice, eventually negotiated a multi-billion-dollar settlement with five major banks that provided principal relief for some underwater homeowners, as well as payments to settle claims of faulty and fraudulent mortgage documentation.


Donovan was first considered for the OMB spot in 2010, but Jack Lew, now Secretary of the Treasury, ended up with the job. Also that year, Donovan was the “designated survivor” during the State of the Union address. If a disaster had taken the lives of Obama and others in the Capitol for the speech, Donovan would have assumed power.


Donovan, who has lived his life in big cities, worked at HUD to develop policies to combat sprawl. He has tried to coordinate housing policy with transportation planning to create areas where workers can easily get to their jobs.


By 2012, the housing crisis began to ease but Donovan had another emergency to deal with: he was made chair of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. In addition to dispensing money to those hurt in the storm, Donovan tried to encourage rebuilding in a way that would make communities more resilient to a storm’s effects.


More recently, Donovan has focused on a crisis in rental housing. The housing meltdown forced millions out of homes they owned and into rental housing, pushing rents higher than some can afford. He has urged Congress to pass housing reform legislation.


Donovan’s wife, Liza Gilbert, is a landscape architect. They have two sons, Milo and Lucas.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Obama Names Shaun Donovan To Head HUD (Associated Press)

A National Housing Innovator Leads City’s Effort for the Poor (by Janny Scott, New York Times)

Mr. Donovan Goes to Washington (by Adam Piore, Real Deal)

Housing’s Hardest Act to Follow (by Donna Kimura, Apartment Finance Today)


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