January 29th, 2015


Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development


The American Dream may no longer mean a sprawling house in the suburbs, with heated pool, an endless lawn and two SUVs in the driveway.  But that doesn’t mean the dream of home ownership has died.  “Hopefully in the years to come, part and parcel of that American dream will be a home that is more energy efficient,” says Julián Castro.  “So it’s still I think at its base the same American dream.  But we can be smarter about the impacts on our climate when we achieve the American dream.”

US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro stopped by The Commonwealth Club on a recent visit to San Francisco to talk about his plans for bringing energy efficiency to every American household. “Folks tend to think that, well, that’s something for people that have a lot of resources -- driving electric cars or installing rooftop solar,” he says.  “The fact is that… the declining cost of being energy efficient in general is making that more and more affordable for middle-class Americans and folks of modest means.”  

The former mayor of San Antonio, Texas has long been seen as a “rising star” among Democrats. His record of championing affordable housing, strong communities and revitalization of older neighborhoods led to him being chosen to join Barack Obama’s cabinet last year. In his new post, Castro is bringing that spirit and dedication to effect change on a national level.

The HUD secretary was in San Francisco, along with Governor Brown, to announce a partnership program to encourage energy efficiency in California’s multifamily housing.  About a quarter of the nation’s households live in multifamily units. Retrofitting HUD buildings, Castro estimates, could lead to a twenty percent reduction in energy consumption that would save $7 billion yearly in energy costs. “People of all economic classes are being impacted by this,” says Castro. “So it really is a new era where everyone can participate in combating climate change.”

But many American communities have already felt the effects of climate change, in the form of hurricanes, floods and drought. Castro says government agencies such as HUD and FEMA are evolving in their approach to disaster relief.  Lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, he says, have shown that simply rebuilding communities the way they were before isn’t the best way to go. “That’s what people are used to,” he says, “but there wasn't as much forward thinking about, you know, how can we redo the infrastructure in a way that creates more resilience for the future?”

To that end, Castro’s office has instigated programs that encourage rebuilding with an eye towards resilience, not replication.  “Our hope is that…the example that they’re setting will set best practices that are then adopted by states throughout our country,” he says.  “Our focus is ensuring that…communities are more sustainable, and they can withstand natural disasters better in the future.”

A wide range of topics were covered during the hour-long visit, from education to economics, immigration to the environment.  Castro didn’t hedge when it came to expressing his opinion on fracking – arguably, an unpopular one among the Climate One audience. “I'm not against it,” he stated. “I do believe, from the evidence that I have gone through and read, that it can be done safely….I believe that there is a utility to it and that it has a strong economic value, that natural gas is an important component of our energy future. And at the same time, keeping an open mind as research continues to come in.”

The inevitable Texas-California comparisons came up for discussion as well. Castro, a Stanford graduate, admitted that California had the advantage in one area. “What California got right historically was that it invested in brainpower, in being innovative and educating people through the university system,” he said. “That was really, you know, I think what California did well in the 20th century, and what Texas in the 21st century is not getting right in the way that it needs to get right.”

He called former governor Rick Perry’s tenure “a missed opportunity.”  Despite his record of job creation and economic growth, Castro says, “what Governor Perry did not get right is investing the infrastructure of opportunity, in strong schools and strong universities.  In making sure that people of different walks of life can prosper and be a part of the American dream.”

There’s speculation that Castro’s rising star could rise much higher.  He has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick; former Bush advisor Mark McKinnon has said that “Julián Castro has a very good chance of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States.”  While Castro admitted he was flattered by the quote, he added, “I seriously doubt that that’s going to be the case.”

And while there are some pleasant surprises to living in Washington – such as living next door to his daughter’s school -- there are some things, according to Castro, that Texas just does better. “I’ll bring my ice tea,” he laughs.  “That's one of my pet peeves about the northeast – it’s impossible to get good iced tea and good barbeque.”


Related Links:


HUD Office of Community Planning and Development

HUD Disaster Recovery Toolkit


-Anny Celsi
January 29, 2015
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California