WASHINGTON — President Bush's nomination Friday of Steve Preston to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development came under fire for the nominee's lack of housing experience amid the worst national housing downturn in memory.
Critics and some key lawmakers said that Preston, who heads the Small Business Administration, was a lawn-care and pest-control business executive before Bush put him at the SBA in 2006.
"In seeking to fill this important Cabinet post I looked for a leader with an impressive background in finance; someone who understands the important role the housing market plays in the broader economy," the president said. "I sought a reformer who would act aggressively to help Americans obtain affordable mortgages ... and be able to keep their homes."
One key Democrat wasn't impressed. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which holds jurisdiction on many housing issues, said the agency needed a strong leader who could keep troubled homeowners in their homes and restore confidence in the sagging mortgage market.
"These priorities call for a leader with expertise in housing issues, yet the president's choice has no apparent housing background, which raises questions," Dodd said in a statement.
ACORN, a housing advocacy group that's been critical of the administration's handling of the housing crisis, also wasn't pleased with the nominee.
"To the extent that the Federal Housing Administration (part of HUD) is being asked to play a major role in solving the foreclosure crisis, nothing in this guy's resume indicates he's that right person," Steve Kest, ACORN's executive director, said in an interview. "To have someone overseeing HUD that has no experience in this area and no demonstrated concern for people losing their homes seems a disaster in the making."
Business groups gave qualified support.
"Mr. Preston will have a number of important projects to complete at HUD. We look forward to working with him on efforts to stabilize the housing market and help at-risk borrowers," Kieran P. Quinn, the chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said in a statement.
Roy DeLoach, the executive vice president of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, said in a statement that "Preston's extensive knowledge and experience on how finance impacts the housing market will benefit all homeowners."
Another prominent Senate Democrat praised Preston for his time at SBA.
"Mr. Preston inherited an agency in disarray, and he's worked hard to right its course and to improve relationships with Congress," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a statement. "We may have some differences on policy, but he's always been professional, responsive and dedicated to the mission."
Former HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, whose last day was Friday, announced last month that he'd soon leave office. He's been dogged by allegations that he steered contracts to rebuild New Orleans to friends.
Before the SBA, Preston served as executive vice president of the ServiceMaster Company. Among its businesses are TruGreen ChemLawn, the nation's largest lawn-care company, and the pest-control company Terminix.
Preston steered clear of controversy when he appeared Friday before the cameras.
"As we help people pursue the American dream, we need to have a market to operate fairly and effectively for all Americans," he said. "And our solutions must restore confidence in our markets while not erecting barriers to future entrepreneurs, investors and home buyers."