Since neurosurgeon and former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson was sworn in as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development on March 2, we’ve barely heard a peep from him. Is it because he’s adjusting to his new position, for which he has no relevant experience? Probably. Is it because, as his surrogate said, that he’s not qualified to run a federal agency? Could be that, too.
Apparently there’s been “an atmosphere of paranoia and guardedness that has enveloped HUD since Trump’s inauguration,” according to a former HUD official under Barack Obama, as reported by Next City.
In his first public remarks as head of HUD in early March, Carson tragically stumbled by referring to slaves as “immigrants.” On March 15, Carson began a “listening tour,” dipping his toes into public scrutiny by traveling to cities in Florida, Michigan and Texas to visit buildings and programs that HUD played a hand in creating. In several awkward cases, Carson has praised an initiative only to find out that Donald Trump’s budget blueprint would eliminate the programs that funded those very projects.
According to a trustee for Dallas County Schools, Carson “and his staff have avoided widely advertising the trip.” His trip to Texas wasn’t announced until hours before his first event, according to CityLab. Carson’s secrecy “may have something to do with the fact that Secretary Carson would rather not have to answer to the public and defend the outrageous budget cuts he and Donald Trump are trying to ram through Congress,” the trustee wrote.
Trump’s proposal cuts $6.2 billion from HUD, or 13.2 percent of its annual budget, by slashing public housing support and development grants. The budget gets rid of the 42-year-old, $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, the Choice Neighborhoods program and the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program.
"We've spent a lot of money on Housing and Urban Development over the last decade without a lot to show for it,” said Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. “Certainly, there are some successes but there are a lot of programs that simply cannot justify their existence and that's where we zeroed in." Meanwhile, according to CNBC, the Community Development Block Grant program provided housing assistance to nearly 74,000 households, gave public services to nine million Americans and created over 17,000 jobs in 2016 alone. But somehow Mulvaney can’t, or won’t, acknowledge these successes as he touts his budget blueprint that will hit the poor in almost every way possible.
Carson has attempted to defend the cuts to the public, and his past statements show he’s likely on board with them. The new HUD secretary has frequently claimed that with government subsidies, people are not incentivized to get off the federal dole. Carson has made some pretty outrageous statements including that poverty is “really more of a choice than anything else.”
Nothing like getting thrown out on the street with two kids and a $7.25-per-hour job to give you the tools to achieve the American dream.
The proposed Trump budget also eliminates a $1.4 billion-per-year disaster relief program within HUD while adding $700 million to the Department of Homeland Security’s disaster funding. The means that the Trump administration wants to cut disaster relief by $800 million, or 9.4 percent. The cuts are part of an effort to take billions from non-defense agencies and send them directly to the Pentagon.
In typical conservative lingo, the budget claims, “State and local governments are better positioned to serve their communities based on local needs and priorities.” How they’ll do that, when they’re already strapped for cash, is unclear. Seeing as 19 states refused to give millions of uninsured residents health care by expanding Medicaid—initially 100 percent subsidized by the federal government—it’s hard to imagine how they’ll bend over backward to help the poor with funding taken away from them.
Carson began his listening tour at Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine, a Detroit public school named after him that is a “Michigan Future School,” meaning it receives support from the nonprofit Michigan Future, a project of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, which supports charter schools. While Ben Carson High is not a charter, Michigan Future has made numerous six-figure donations to several charters in Detroit.
The next day, Carson had lunch at a restaurant made possible by the Motor City Match program, which helps Detroit businesses establish themselves and grow via grants, loans and counseling funded in part by HUD’s Community Development Block Grants. Carson praised the program on Twitter while his agency is set to eliminate it.
On March 30, Carson attended a youth baseball game hosted by the Dallas Housing Authority, and the next day he popped into a Dallas Habitat for Humanity facility for a mere 15 minutes. In 2015, Carson publicly opposed an anti-housing segregation provision of the Fair Housing Act, strengthened by a Supreme Court ruling involving Dallas, calling it a “mandated social engineering scheme.”
Then he moved on to Florida. In Jacksonville on April 11, he stopped at a poorly maintained low-income apartment building that’s part of HUD’s project-based Section 8 program, which provides residents with rental assistance. Carson praised housing vouchers, but Trump’s budget proposal would cut $600 million from Section 8 programs, which include vouchers and project-based initiatives.
Next, Carson hit Miami and visited an apartment complex that includes dozens of units for the homeless and low-income residents. A supportive housing group built the complex mostly with federal funding, including $1.5 million from the HOME program that the Trump administration wants to cut. The building wouldn’t exist without HOME, said the president of the supportive housing organization. And Miami sees $4 million a year in development block grants, which the city will say goodbye to if the Trump budget passes.
On the tour, the housing secretary has heaped praise on public-private partnerships, which already make up a good portion of affordable housing projects. “I just really appreciate the fact that we are starting to learn as a nation that it’s the private-public partnerships that work because there’s almost unlimited money in the private sector,” said Carson.
Carson hasn’t offered specifics on his plans for the agency, and what he did say isn’t reassuring to people who depend on affordable housing. “I would forget the numbers and think about the concept,” said Carson in Detroit. “The concept is we're going to take care of our people.”
“The parts of these programs that are functioning well—and that are maintaining people—are going to be preserved,” Carson said vaguely in Miami, without giving details on how the programs will survive the massive cuts in the budget blueprint.
Carson, like Trump, has yet to fill many key positions in his department. According to the HUD website, all eight assistant secretary positions are vacant, as well as the “president,” chief information officer and chief operations officer. All ten regional administrators are missing as well as many deputy assistant secretaries. Unlike some heads of other agencies, Carson has actually kept on a number of staffers from the Obama administration, although his Deputy Chief of Staff is Deana Bass, a GOP operative who was press secretary for his campaign.
As Carson attempts to begin making changes to HUD policy, at least one group is following his moves closely. CarsonWatch is “a grassroots campaign” launched by nonprofit lawyers’ group Public Advocates and funded by three housing and justice organizations including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, according to CityLab. The site offers news updates and opportunities to “take action.”
The website reads, “CarsonWatch is committed to stopping President Trump, HUD Secretary Ben Carson and their congressional allies from any attempts to roll back fair housing protections and undermine the housing security of millions of Americans.”