woman smiling, standing outside with the US Capitol building in the skyline.

Housing as a civil right

Elizabeth De León Bhargava ’03 has been advocating for people her entire life. In the trenches of New York City government. In Albany making state policy. And now, as Assistant Secretary for Administration at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in a position of nationwide impact.

Bhargava’s career in public service is rooted in her experience seeing how government can help people. As a child, her family was displaced by a fire in their Bronx apartment building and left briefly homeless. Their move to live with family in Washington Heights left her with a visceral appreciation for the emotional toll that dislocation wreaks on families, she says. “At HUD, and my office in particular, we often respond to disasters and emergencies with our partner agencies. Because of my own experience, helping rebuild people’s lives is something that resonates with me in a real way.” 

Bhargava’s experience gave her an understanding of the connection between policy (“It’s how policies were implemented that really affected me….”) and community success. When it came time for college, she chose to pursue her dreams upstate at SUNY Binghamton and UB for law school. 

After law school, Bhargava moved into a succession of responsible and impactful positions—all of which, she says, prepared her for her work at HUD. At the state Attorney General’s office, she investigated and prosecuted cases in defense of livable, affordable housing. In Albany, as Deputy Secretary for Labor and Workforce, she was instrumental in securing the state’s $15 minimum hourly wage and establishing the nation’s most robust Paid Family Leave program, affecting more than 9 million workers.  

As a deputy commissioner in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, Bhargava led major projects through the city’s Neighborhood Development Division, where she oversaw more than $100 million in funding for neighborhood organizations working on commercial revitalization and business district improvements.

There, Bhargava came to realize that helping people make a good life involves much more than housing. “A family needs a home,” she says, “but it needs a neighborhood as well. I started to learn more about what is needed to develop safe neighborhoods—dealing with crime, creating businesses, creating jobs. It got me thinking about how neighborhoods are changing, how we might help them thrive, and how we could leverage these mechanisms to address the uniqueness of every neighborhood.”   

With her appointment by President Biden and confirmation by the Senate in May of last year, Bhargava assumed responsibility for “the people and processes” of the federal agency which is responsible for enforcing fair-housing law, providing rental assistance for low-income households, investing in communities through programs like Community Development Block Grants, and working to make decent, affordable housing available to all.

Administration, she says, is about making sure the policies and programs underpinning HUD can be executed. “How are we going to help these programs to execute their mission?” she says. “Whether it is hiring, procurement or managing the Department’s 3.5 million square feet of office space, nothing can really be done unless you have an office of administration to help. But, at the end of the day, it all boils down to being able to support a family who has or wants a home.” 

Which is, she hastens to point out, a matter of justice. “I consider housing to be a civil rights issue,” Bhargava says. “HUD was created to address the systemic racism that permeated the housing sector and help the historically underserved. It is an honor to be a part of the team tackling these inequities today.”