The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department is refocusing its priorities, and its federal dollars, on the department’s staple duties of placing low-income families in public housing units and utilizing Section 8 vouchers. That was the message from representatives of HUD at the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials’ regional conference this weekend in Napa

HUD officials emphasized the department will be getting serious about ensuring local public housing authorities maintain at least 97 percent occupancy in their units, and optimize more of their housing choice vouchers.

Optimizing vouchers means having renters use their allotted vouchers in a subsidized lease, a surprisingly difficult thing to do. For a variety of reasons, vouchers that are allotted to a renter are often never put to use.

HUD is aiming to put an end to that.

HUD is setting a goal of leasing as many as 112,300 vouchers in fiscal year 2011. To achieve that goal, HUD is contacting its “Top 200” public housing authorities, or the ones that have the biggest gaps between their allocated and leased vouchers. HUD is also aiming to fill more of the country’s public housing units with needy families, and will be working with housing authorities whose projects are more than three percent vacant. This new push for focus will likely mean scaling back such programs as community service reviews and aiding local housing authorities with dispositions.

The new push is timely, both as a matter of HUD’s fiscal position and policy mission. Part of the reason for the focus is that HUD’s staff has been cut by roughly half in the last 15 years. But factoring into the focus are concerns that President Obama’s call for a five-year hiring freeze that would continue to whittle down HUD employee roster and forecast a prolonged period of staff austerity. With fewer hands on deck, HUD has less horsepower to tackle the issues lingering on the periphery of its core duties.

In the longer term, demand for those core duties is likely to increase. 2011 is the first year that the Baby Boomers begin reaching retirement age (65) and countless are starting their golden years with their retirement funds and 401Ks ravaged by the Great Recession. As the full cohort of Baby Boomers transition into retirement (occupying a demographic span of about 18 years), many will do so with little security and little means. Social needs will therefore likely mount.

Among those needs is housing. Retirees will be in need of affordable housing in greater numbers than this country has seen in generations. And the existing housing stock and program infrastructure isn’t ready for the challenge.

Like most social aid, HUD’s funding appears countercyclical to demand; just as the forecast for low-income residents goes up, the department’s fiscal position seems shaky.

The department continues to function without a budget – Congress adopted a Continuing Resolution, in lieu of a new budget, that lasts until March. Whether the President and Congress can come to an agreement by March on a budget that suits HUD’s mission is a question that will dramatically affect the department, thousands of public housing authorities, and countless residents of low-income housing throughout the country.

So it makes sense that in the meantime HUD is concentrating on its most elemental responsibilities. In these times of uncertainty, it is reasonable that HUD is holding fast to its core mission above all else. What it means for local housing authorities, however, is probably a tougher oversight presence from HUD and reduced leniency for under-leased vouchers or under-occupied units.

On the other hand, HUD’s renewed focus on the basics means greater outreach, collaboration, and support for housing authorities. The department will be providing more training, disseminating best practices, and comparing tools used by local authorities to monitor vouchers. Although its ranks are lean, HUD is committed to getting back in the trenches with local officials to try to improve performance.

Public housing, like most social aid programs today, is caught between rising demand and fewer resources. And the result will be a serious winnowing down of the administrative apparatus that delivers units and vouchers to low-income families. Expect a leaner, meaner HUD in 2011 – a more focused department to both challenge and support local housing officials in these austere times.

Josh Rosa is a Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commissioner.