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What could US cities expect from Ben Carson as HUD secretary?

Ben Carson's lack of political experience makes him hard to predict. But as the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he would have the power to shape – and likely shrink – the government's role in housing assistance.

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Ben Carson (l.) and Donald Trump speak during a round table with the Republican Leadership Initiative at Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, on Aug. 25, 2016.

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Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon and erstwhile rival of Donald Trump, was nominated Monday by the president-elect to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

If confirmed by the Senate to be secretary of HUD, Carson would oversee a department dedicated to developing and enacting policies on housing, focusing on building community in lower-income neighborhoods, providing financial assistance for homeowners, and preventing racial discrimination in local housing policies.

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Reactions to the nomination have fallen largely along party lines, with many Democrats criticizing Carson's lack of experience, having never held public office before – inexperience that also makes it hard to predict his potential priorities in a Trump administration. But he has been a frequent critic of social welfare programs, saying that church- and community-based initiatives are a better vehicle than government programs for assisting Americans in poverty.

"I am thrilled to nominate Dr. Ben Carson as our next secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development," Trump said in a statement released by his transition team. "Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities. We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities."

Trump and Carson had discussed the job before Thanksgiving, but Carson initially expressed reluctance to take a position on the cabinet, despite his campaign for the US presidency, because of his lack of experience in a political office. Since then, Carson has evidently overcome those reservations.

"I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need," Carson said in the statement.

Carson is the first African-American pick for Trump's cabinet, and would likely be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Carson's communication skills give him "the ability to bring the message of poverty alleviation to people nationwide and I hope he would quickly learn the importance of HUD and would try to make it better, stronger, more efficient" Robert C. Moss, the national director of government affairs at CohnReznick, a public accounting firm, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. 

"Carson is a very skilled speaker, maybe one of the best we'll see in this role," writes Mr. Moss, who specializes in affordable housing, "and if he hits on the right direction and takes the message around the country, he could help make the case for affordable housing."

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Trump's campaign did not focus much on housing or urban development, other than to describe the state of poor "inner city" African-Americans and Hispanics as "disastrous" on multiple occasions. Many critics of Carson say that the former Republican presidential candidate ran on a platform of shrinking the role of government agencies like HUD, putting him at philosophical odds with the very department he will be in charge of.

HUD was created in 1965 in order to build stronger communities and create affordable housing for Americans with low incomes. The department was given the responsibility of enforcing the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed most forms of housing discrimination, including racial, religious, or based on family status.

African-Americans, in particular, have experienced decades of housing discrimination, says David Rice, the academic program director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship
 at Brooklyn Law School.

"Redlining, the practice of refusing to provide credit in minority communities, was implemented on a national scale since the beginning of the New Deal, by government agencies like the Federal Housing Administration," Professor Rice tells the Monitor in an email. "Such policies continued on for decades. These policies led, in part, to the disinvestment in cities through the 1960s that impacted African-American communities most of all."

But some of the HUD's recent rules have come under criticism for "social engineering." One particular policy Carson has publicly opposed is the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule adopted by the Obama administration, which requires cities to monitor and report on any housing patterns of racial bias, in an effort to promote less segregated neighborhoods. 

"The purpose of the AFFH rule is to reduce segregation which had been caused in part by the federal government's own actions," says Rice. The secretary of HUD "can signal that fair housing allegations and violations will be taken seriously or not. If Carson is confirmed, it will send a strong signal that local governments do not need to worry about the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule for the foreseeable future."

In 2015, Carson penned an op-ed comparing the plan "failed socialist experiments," likening it to busing programs' attempts to desegregate public schools, and accusing the government of federal overreach. 

"There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous," Carson concluded. 

Carson, who lived under government-subsidized housing as a child, has said on multiple occasions that individual effort, rather than government programs, is the key to overcoming poverty. 

"We the people have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society," Carson said at a Republican political event in February. "It's not the government's job."

This report contains material from Reuters.