Lawmakers challenged HUD Secretary Ben Carson at a hearing this month about a number of controversial Trump administration policies.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development grilled the secretary about HUD’s proposed budget cuts for FY 2021, as well as moves to weaken rules for ending segregation and to cut back fair housing protections for homeless LGBTQ persons. They also questioned Carson’s opposition to a proven strategy for reducing homelesness.
At the hearing, Carson defended the Trump Administration’s proposal to slash $8.6 billion from the HUD budget because the cuts are needed to reduce the national deficit. He was questioned about why HUD proposed eliminating several programs, including Community Development Block Grants and HOME. These programs support affordable housing, public infrastructure, and community services like Meals on Wheels. Carson said that while these programs are “great models,” state and local governments should provide these resources instead of the federal government.
Lawmakers also pointed out the disconnect between the Trump Administration’s rhetoric about addressing homelessness, especially on the West Coast, and its proposal to cut homeless assistance grants for FY 2021. The administration has targeted California cities for not responding to the huge growth in homelessness there, but rejected calls from state officials to provide more housing vouchers and funds to help reduce the number of unsheltered people.
Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL) confronted Carson over his decision to propose new rules limiting equal access protections for homeless transgender persons. The proposal would apply to shelters with single-sex facilities like bathrooms or sleeping quarters. It would allow these shelters to set policies that could lead to homeless transgender persons being mistreated or barred from shelters.
Rep. Quigley also criticized Carson’s removal of the guidance from HUD’s website that barred discrimination against transgender people. He was upset the guidance was removed without HUD providing any new guidance for shelter providers. Carson replied that HUD is working on the guidance, and that he believes “everyone gets equal rights, but nobody gets extra rights.”
Rep. Quigley argued HUD’s policy was saying “that if someone doesn’t like someone else in that shelter, for whatever reasons, that you can allow discrimination against these people.” Carson replied, “No, what I’m saying is we have to take everybody’s feelings into consideration. You can’t just select a group and say that their feelings trump everyone else’s groups.”
Carson said that he wants “everybody to be taken care of.” He later asked Rep. Quigley to provide a “solution,” pointing out that the congressman is passionate about the issue. Quigley hit back, saying, “not as passionate as the people on the street. The law says you can’t discriminate. That’s my solution.”
Subcommittee members also asked about other recent HUD policy proposals that limit fair housing protections and restrict housing assistance. They asked about HUD’s proposal to deny housing assistance to households that have an immigrant family member, even if someone in the household is a U.S. citizen. They also questioned HUD’s proposal to change the “disparate impact” rule, which would make it harder for low-income people to file fair housing complaints.
Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman criticized HUD’s effort to change the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. This rule requires local governments to take steps that will end traditional patterns of segregation and create more housing opportunity. Rep. Coleman was concerned that the new rule “no longer includes both desegregation and community investment,” focusing instead on the overall supply of housing. She pressed Carson about how effective this rule would be, and he could not explain how it would increase housing choice and reduce segregation. He said it was a “bottom up” approach, meaning local governments know their community needs best, but these are the same cities and counties that have resisted changes all along.
Secretary Carson was also questioned by Congressman Pete Aguilar (D-CA) about Carson’s opposition to the Housing First model for helping homeless persons. Housing First approaches place homeless people in stable housing as quickly as possible. These programs also include wrap-around services to help people get back on their feet. The approach has been very effective in reducing homelessness around the country. When Congress passed its FY 2020 appropriations, it provided bipartisan support from both chambers for the Housing First model.
Secretary Carson has resisted the Housing First model. He tried to undermine giving Housing First proposals priority in the FY 2019 funding round for homeless assistance grants. Carson expressed at the hearing that he still wants to move away from the Housing First approach, and is “looking for ways to work around the system.” Rep. Aguilar had an issue with that statement. He said that a policy directive from Congress is not a suggestion and should not be ignored.
Although Secretary Carson was at the hearing to talk about HUD funding and programs, he was also asked to defend the work of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. Subcommittee Chairman David Price (D-NC) asked Carson if the Coronavirus Task Force will base its guidance to the public on fact-based evidence. Carson assured the Chairman, “We want to make sure it’s completely transparent, it’s not sugar-coated, it’s not used in any way as a political tool.”
There are troubling patterns in Secretary Carson’s testimony. It shows the Trump administration’s ongoing rejection of fact-based approaches to large scale social problems like homelessness. It also shows a pattern o fHUD officials ignoring Congressional requirements that the president does not like. HUD and White House officials need to be held accountable when they do not follow the law. These Congressional hearings are one of the few ways the public can learn about what the Trump administration is doing with these programs that are a lifeline for low-income renters.