CONVERSATIONS WITH HJM: SECRETARY JAKE DAY
“We have learned some of the resistance that communities feel toward affordable housing and development in general because we have built pretty poorly in America… So, when you think about the nimbyism reaction to the things that we’ve built, it’s no wonder why people feel this way…we have to counteract the damage that we did, so that is a focus of this administration. That is one of the things that the Governor is committed to and that he and I are equally concerned about. We are here to change the future.”
Jake Day is the Secretary of Housing and Community Development for the State of Maryland, bringing unique experience and a local government twist to the state level. Before he was selected for this essential role in Governor Wes Moore’s Cabinet, Day most recently served as the Mayor of Salisbury for two terms and prior to that, held the City Council President position from 2013-2015.
A Salisbury native, Day was born and raised only a block from where he lives today. From an early age, Day had a passion for community development and design. He not only wanted to make his own hometown better, but other municipalities across the State as well. This passion led Day to study Architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park where he earned his Bachelor’s degree. He also holds Master’s degrees in Urban Design from Carnegie Mellon University and in Environmental Policy from Oxford University. During his academic career, Day began to align his design interests with his policy interests.
After graduating, Day began working for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy where he served as the Town Planning Manager and Director, working on community design with small towns up and down the Eastern Shore. Through that experience, Day became increasingly aware of the growing challenges facing his hometown. He felt compelled to take action, leading him to run for Salisbury City Council. Under his leadership, Day produced a national model housing crisis response that increased affordable housing and energized homelessness reduction programs. He also created the city’s first youth development programs and opened two youth community centers in underprivileged areas, oversaw the most dramatic drop in crime in the history of the City, and spearheaded many more policies that helped him successfully revitalize Downtown Salisbury.
Similar to Governor Moore, Day brings a military background to his role as Secretary. He joined the U.S. Army in 2009 and is currently a Major, assigned to the Maryland Army National Guard as an Information Operations and Special Technical Officer with the 110th Information Operations Battalion. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was getting deployed overseas for a year, but it was also one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life…I think it’s a reminder of just how fulfilling it could be to be driven by a mission and to see change on the ground in the things that we’re passionate about.”, Day says. Much like Governor Moore, Day’s military experiences influence the way he approaches each day as a leader for the State.
In this conversation series, Jake Day sits down with me to tell me about his new role as Maryland’s Secretary of Housing & Community Development and what his vision and priorities are for housing statewide.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what brought you to where you are today as the Secretary of Housing and Community Development for the State of Maryland?
I was born and raised about a block from where I live today in Salisbury, Maryland. I am proud to still be here in my hometown and home state. I grew up and spent my entire life here in Salisbury. My dad worked for a well-known poultry company around here, my mom was a teacher, and my grandfather was a minister which is what kind of brought our family here to the shore. I grew up exposed to kind of the best of all that Maryland’s Eastern Shore has to offer. One of the things that helped shape my interests later in life and my career trajectory was that I had great teachers who taught me about architecture and city planning. Exposure to that in elementary school through the magnet program and something called TAD (Thinking And Doing), taught me that I had a passion for not just making my hometown better, but other cities, and community development and design in general.
This passion is what drove me to go to Architecture school at the University of Maryland, College Park, and then later on I went to Carnegie Mellon University where I studied Urban Design, which furthered my interest in more of the policy side of city making. I got my degree there and went for another Master’s degree in Environmental Policy from Oxford University, where I started sort of rounding out my transition from just design interest to policy interest, which essentially launched my career in public service. After graduating, I found my way right back to the Shore. I started working for an organization called the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, doing community design work with small towns up and down the Eastern Shore. I eventually got tired of coming home every night reading in the newspaper about all the bad things that were happening in the town where I live, so I felt like I had to get involved, which led me to run for City Council. From there, I became the City Council President and then later ran for Mayor and served two terms until Governor Wes Moore asked me to come to work for him, and I could not say no to that opportunity.
You have an impressive military background–something that you and Governor Moore share. Knowing that the Governor has frequently spoken out on how his military career has shaped his worldwide views and political philosophy, would you say that your military background influences the way that you approach your leadership position as Secretary?
I joined the army late. I was 27 years old and my nickname at basic training at Fort Benning was “grandpa” for a while. To the 18-year-olds, I was an old man. The reason I did it was because I initially wanted to do that at 17 years old, but my parents said, “No way” and encouraged me to go get my education. I’m glad I did that, but I still felt like I was missing that part of my life, so when I had an opportunity and a window to do it, I went for it. It wasn’t easy but I loved it and got incredible experiences from it. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was getting deployed overseas for a year, but it was also one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. The hard part was being away from my children, and the fulfilling part was the mission-oriented part. I think it’s a reminder of just how fulfilling it could be to be driven by a mission and to see change in the ground on the things that we’re passionate about. There is no doubt that my military background influences everything that I do–as a manager, a leader, and as a public servant. There are a variety of ways in which it does that. One of my operating principles for an organization is to elevate our purpose over the bureaucracy that we’re all a piece of. There are good reasons why those bureaucracies exist, but I do try to remind people that when you’re given the decision, if you can elevate principle over process, then I’m confident that we’ll get better outcomes from State government. Leaders are paid to make decisions. Many times, we see these organizations that are being led with little progress in the areas that they are focused on. However, the ones we do see progress in are the ones where their leader is not afraid to make decisions. It doesn’t always mean we’ll make the right ones, but standing on the “X,” or standing in the “doorway”, as we might say in the military, is what gets you killed and it’s what kills the progress of an organization.
You were the Mayor of Salisbury for 8 years, and before that, you held the City Council President position, so you bring a local government twist to the administration. From your time in those local government positions, can you tell us about how this administration compares to your previous work on the local government side, and how those experiences may affect your work now at the state level?
I built what I did in city government from the ground up. I don’t mean that I built it from scratch, but that I built it from my home, my neighborhood, my city, and out. I was a participant and eventually President of the Maryland Municipal League. I was also deeply involved in the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities. But all of those efforts began with my experiences in my own neighborhood. State government operates at a scale that is more difficult to conceptualize. It’s not just about you and your neighbors, but it’s about diverse communities that are far apart and that are in different stages of their own progression with their own local leaders. So, the difference I see is that what I was putting together before, I now have the benefit of being asked to be a part of something that is almost like a massive locomotive that is starting to turn. In that analogy, you could say that we’re already 100 miles down the track; but we’re still a new organization with new leadership under Governor Moore and Lieutenant Governor Miller. It’s this new thing but just on a different scale with a different energy. One of the big differences is when I moved within city government from the council table to Mayor, I became a leader of a team that already largely existed and that I knew. Similarly, at DHCD, you make some moves and then you adjust. But now I have joined a team handpicked by Governor Moore, and it has been a remarkable experience.
When I took on the job, I think some people probably thought, “You’re the chief executive, how are you going to be able to take on a role where you are not the sole lead, but part of a broader team?.” Let me tell you that it has been the best experience because I look around at one of those cabinet meetings and I see an extremely diverse team. There was no political patronage and no selection of people based on their notoriety, fame, or power. Governor Moore picked people who were uniquely designed to address the public policy problems and situations that the agency faced as a part of the overall challenge of making Maryland better for all. It’s an amazing feeling to sit in that room and see or feel like you’ve got some kind of direct counterpart with a similar resume–everybody is so widely different and has fresh eyes and different perspectives to bring to the table.
Housing is a huge issue right now, to say the least. Given the current national housing shortfall, could you talk about your vision and priorities for the State moving forward? What sort of initiatives is the administration working on now in this area?
You just acknowledged something that I think many people don’t, which is that we have a massive housing shortage and that this is 15-plus years in the making, really since the 2008 financial crisis. That shortage is estimated to be at 120,000 units in Maryland which means it’s going to take many years to catch up. Whatever the fraction increase that we can achieve through policy decisions and funding changes/increases is not going to fix the problem overnight. It’s one of those areas where you have to push on multiple levers simultaneously. We have to have those tough conversations with local governments about how we can knock down barriers that exist in permitting, zoning, and even in the tax structure. In all of those areas, you have to have the conversation with local governments, which we are doing. We are utilizing partnerships with the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties who are great partners in talking about these issues and their members are doing a great job.
In addition to that, I think that scale matters. We have great programs such as Rental Housing Works, the Partnership Rental Housing Program, and Shelter and Transitional Housing programs, but regardless of those, scale is important, and we have to produce more housing. There are also so many global factors working against us–from the labor market to interest rates, to construction costs and supply chain delays. We can only control what we can control, but we must push on all of these things. But while we’re doing that, we’ll have to have an eye toward building better than we used to. We have learned some of the resistance that communities feel toward affordable housing and development in general because we have built pretty poorly in America, and the government has probably done it the worst. The government has built poorly, and we have subsidized some pretty bad things. Sprawl development has destroyed Maryland’s beautiful landscape and burdened us with massive debt, maintenance, and operating costs that we can’t afford, along with legacy costs that are going to force local jurisdictions in the state beyond a tax burden that people can’t afford. This type of building has to be a thing of the past because it’s not just that we’ve built places that are not financially or environmentally sustainable, but we have also built unlovable places. So, when you think about sort of the nimbyism reaction to the things that we’ve built, it’s no wonder why people feel that way. And on top of that, we have built in such a way that we end up destroying neighborhoods with highways with urban renewal dollars, sucking equity out of places, which we largely did to minority communities which the government again, underwrote. We have to counteract the damage that we did, so that is a focus of this administration. That is one of the things that the Governor is committed to and that he and I are equally concerned about. We are here to change the future.
What have been some of your biggest challenges in your new role? What have you been most surprised by?
Every day is filled with challenges because every day we work through tough deals. You have to remember that the DHCD is a bank. We’re the State’s housing finance agency and a major lending institution. We do a variety of activities such as business lending, mortgages, housing development finance, and much more. The DHCD is also a large grant-making institution for redevelopment and revitalization efforts and the massive broadband initiative of the State. With all our diverse responsibilities, every day is a challenge. We’re making deals every single day, which also means modifying these deals to the changing market conditions and needs. We try to be a problem solver, a troubleshooter, and a partner to the private sector and local governments in Maryland. Even throughout these little challenges, I still have an optimistic outlook on what life is like as Maryland’s Housing Secretary. The reason why I feel that way is because of the incredible amount of talent I have at DHCD. One of the things that you’ll see is a lot of the same faces. We are one of those institutions that has had a steadier trajectory of growth over the last 15-20 years that doesn’t experience a lot of boom-and-bust times with the changing politics and the change in the political party of the administration. Each Governor has found a way to make it their own. So, there is no doubt that Governor Moore’s vision, which is quite clearly focused on ensuring that no one gets left behind, especially those who have been clearly left behind, are no longer treated that way in the State. The DHCD is going to live that out and be at the forefront for a lot of those changes and delivery on those promises.
By: Valerie Skvirsky, Government Relations Associate