The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is charged with housing our nation’s most vulnerable people and revitalizing blighted communities. The success of HUD Secretaries should reflect how much their policies improve the lives of low-income renters. Ben Carson’s time as Secretary of HUD was spent undermining this important mission.
Carson’s lack of housing knowledge, management expertise, and legislative experience were handicaps from the beginning. President Trump proposed severe cuts to affordable housing programs each year, which the Secretary defended annually.
Under his leadership, HUD reversed course on many policies that have helped low-income renters and bring money to poor communities. His signature initiative to empower Public Housing residents never really got off the ground.
Secretary Carson is one of the few cabinet members to remain through all of President Trump’s term. He never disagreed with President Trump, and pursued Trump’s goal of “reducing the federal footprint” in affordable housing.
How did Secretary Carson’s policies impact low-income renters around the country? We can look at his leadership in management, support for program funding, and action on fair housing regulations. We can also look at his empowerment proposals and public statements.
Management and Staffing Issues
Secretary Carson started his time at HUD with a controversy over the cost of a new dining set for his office suite. There were also questions about the qualifications of senior staff in his executive office. Since the Secretary had little housing or management experience, it concerned many that the Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff also had limited relevant experience.
Carson also supported President Trump’s efforts to make cuts to the department. Senior HUD staff with a lot of knowledge and experience were forced out. Budget cuts over the last 10 years had limited new staffing and promotions at HUD. On top of that, the Trump administration took steps to roll back civil service protections. Like many federal agencies during the Trump administration, HUD lost workers and staff experienced low morale.
Secretary Carson pledged early in his term to step up property inspections and improve troubled housing authorities. In the wake of a deadly carbon monoxide leak at a Public Housing property in Missouri, the Secretary did push to have carbon monoxide detectors in every Public Housing unit. However, according to HUD’s inspector general, many troubled housing authorities are still operating without proper oversight. This leaves thousands of Public Housing residents living in unsafe conditions.
Proposed Budget Cuts and Withheld Funds
Each year in his term, President Trump proposed a budget with drastic cuts to HUD programs. In each of those years, Secretary Carson went to Capitol Hill to defend the proposals. And low-income renters are fortunate that Congress ignored the Trump/Carson budget proposal each year. Congress has provided much more funding for affordable housing programs each year than Trump recommended.
The budget proposals defended by Carson did not have enough funds to renew all current Section 8 Housing Vouchers. This would have left thousands of families unable to pay their rent. They eliminated the Public Housing capital fund, which pays for critical repairs to Public Housing properties. They also proposed drastic cuts to the Public Housing operating fund, which covers daily operations and ongoing maintenance.
“The budget proposals defended by Carson did not have enough funds to renew all current Section 8 Housing Vouchers. This would have left thousands of families unable to pay their rent.”
The Trump/Carson budgets also proposed to cut funding for rural rental housing, and called for eliminating Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and the HOME block grant program. These programs provide affordable housing, water and sewer systems, and other critical infrastructure for poor communities.
Secretary Carson also defended HUD budget proposals each year to impose work requirements and increase minimum rents for residents of federally assisted housing. Billed as promoting “self-sufficiency,” these measures would have burdened thousands of vulnerable seniors, single parents, and disabled residents with rents they could not afford and work obligations they could not meet.
Carson not only aimed to cut housing funding. Following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Congress authorized billions of dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. The immediate federal response to the disaster had been slow, and the Trump administration faced criticism from local officials.
Trump-appointed officials at HUD admitted they held up billions in recovery and rebuilding assistance for Puerto Rico. They claimed that Puerto Rican officials were not prepared to manage that much funding at once, even though HUD’s inspector general had approved of the territory’s fiscal controls.
Removing Fair Housing Protections
Secretary Carson supported many regulatory changes that hurt low-income renters and poor communities struggling to rebuild. These changes to fair housing and other regulations excluded vulnerable people from services, kept eligible families from assistance, and let cities off the hook for policies that entrenched segregation over generations.
Secretary Carson oversaw rescinding the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. The Fair Housing Act requires cities and states to take steps that eliminate housing discrimination and residential segregation.
The AFFH rule had cities do a local analysis of historic patterns of segregation. Local governments also had to propose measurable steps to eliminate segregation. Without this accountability, low-income minority renters will still find most affordable rental housing in poor neighborhoods with fewer opportunities.
Carson also implemented a rule allowing homeless service and shelter providers to discriminate against homeless transgender persons. Transgender persons are highly likely to experience homelessness at some point in their lives. They are also very likely to experience harassment and assault.
Under Carson, HUD also took steps in line with President Trump’s efforts to restrict immigration. HUD implemented a rule to deny housing assistance to mixed immigration status households. These are families where at least one member is a U.S. citizen and eligible for housing assistance. The new rule means they must choose between splitting up or losing their housing assistance.
The Trump administration also revised the disparate impact rule. This is a legal doctrine that says people can experience discrimination even if that was not the intent of the policy or procedure. The Trump administration changes make it much harder for low-income renters to prove housing discrimination claims.
Ineffective Empowerment Programs
Secretary Carson pushed for two empowerment programs. EnVision Centers were his signature proposal. EnVision Centers were places where Public Housing residents could go to access services and resources that promote self-sufficiency. The EnVision Centers suffered from a lack of clear direction, and the initiative never really took off.
The Trump administration also promoted Opportunity Zones. These are designated census tracts in distressed areas. Investors receive tax incentives for investing in these poor communities. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, the program has been criticized for not benefitting existing minority businesses.
Much of the investment has been focused on high end commercial and residential projects that do not benefit low-income renters. There was also some controversy over presidential advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner profiting from Opportunity Zone investments. Kushner had lobbied for the tax breaks.
Controversial Public Statements
Secretary Carson also made some controversial public statements. In some cases, they showed his lack of housing knowledge. In others, he made absurd claims to pressure local governments. In one case, he supported keeping poor and minority renters out of suburbs as part of President Trump’s reelection effort.
One instance that had some humor was when Secretary Carson confused a common real estate term with a popular cookie. When asked about REOs, the Secretary thought he was being asked about “oreos.” REO means “Real Estate Owned,” and is a term for a property that a bank must hold onto because it could not sell the property at auction.
West Coast cities have seen tremendous growth in the number of unsheltered people. Most of these cities are governed by Democratic mayors who were targeted by President Trump on a number of issues. These issues included immigration sanctuary cities and environmental regulations that are stricter than federal requirements. The Secretary and President also pushed West Coast cities to relax their development codes so that it would be easier for developers to build new commercial and housing projects.
On a tour in California, Secretary Carson and President Trump made headlines with wild statements about growing homelessness in West Coast cities. They said that the exploding number of homeless people was causing environmental problems with their waste. They threatened to fine these cities for environmental violations if they did not relax development codes.
The most outrageous statements made by Secretary Carson came in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed co-written with President Trump. Carson and Trump used fear-mongering in an effort to attract suburban voters, especially women. They claimed that fair housing policies that reduce segregation would threaten the suburbs. Also, that high-rise low-income housing would be built and bring crime as poor minority residents move in. Neither claims were true.
What the Record Shows
Under Secretary Carson, HUD still fulfilled its core mission. Millions of low-income renters had safe, affordable places to live because of Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, Public Housing and other HUD programs. Communities still used HUD community development funding to make their water and sewer systems safe, built new affordable units, and helped rebuild after disasters.
But Secretary Carson’s leadership limited the department’s service to low-income renters, distressed communities, and people of color. He led the effort to limit fair housing protections for the most vulnerable low-income renters. He defended steep cuts to critical housing programs, and pushed work requirements and rent increases.
“Secretary Carson’s leadership limited the department’s service to low-income renters, distressed communities, and people of color.”
Secretary Carson’s HUD withheld critical disaster rebuilding funds from Puerto Rico. He weakened the ability of HUD staff to respond to future emergencies. In the middle of a pandemic with millions of renters facing the threat of eviction, a strong HUD directive is needed more than ever.