Ben Carson basically got a warm congressional hug on Thursday, as the group of U.S. senators charged with vetting and approving President-elect Donald Trump’s selection for HUD Secretary took less than three hours to question the nominee.
If critics of the appointment — who say Carson’s professionally unqualified to oversee a federal agency that ensures millions of poor Americans have housing — were hoping for a grilling, they were surely disappointed. The man in the not-so-hot seat himself said, when it was ending, that it had been “kind of fun.”
For those worried about the lack of specifics from Trump or Carson on the incoming administration’s plans for cities, the session wasn’t terribly illuminating; some might say it was confusing. The Atlantic’s Alana Semuels pointed out that Carson’s answers were often contradictory, noting that “Carson both pledged to cut spending, and to keep — or even expand — programs that are the hallmark of what HUD does.” These programs include administering rental assistance, ending veteran homelessness and removing dangerous lead paint from homes. (Read “5 Housing Experts Weigh In on HUD Secretary Nominee Ben Carson” for a good overview on how Carson could impact the agency’s mission.) Inconsistent or no, here are some Carson quotes from the hearing (and tweeted responses from housing advocates) worth noting, especially when it comes to problems facing U.S. cities. (You can watch the whole thing below.)
Regarding a lack of affordable housing and the rent-burdened — Americans using more than 30 percent of their income to pay the rent — Carson said more than once that the key is both decreasing housing costs and increasing wages. He also affirmed he’s against raising the minimum wage. He called HUD’s rental assistance program “essential,” though Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who’s a Democrat, noted later that in a conversation the two had in her office, Carson said there are “limits” to assistance.
Cortez Masto asked what he’d do for a person who works 80-plus hours each week to keep their home, and Carson replied, “There’s a much bigger-picture issue here, and that is fixing our economy, and working very hard to create the right kind of atmosphere. When that happens, people have a lot more options in terms of their jobs, and people have to raise their salaries.”
Helping Poor People
Carson’s skepticism about federal social safety nets is well documented, yet he said Thursday it would be “cruel and unusual punishment” to withdraw assistance without first setting up an alternative. He didn’t outline any brand-new programs, but with a nod to his experience as a physician, he noted that “good health has a lot to do with a good environment,” and that he believes neighborhood health clinics could save on ER visits (an idea that he promoted during his run for president). Side note: Through one senator’s comments, we learned Carson hasn’t yet read Matthew Desmond’s acclaimed 2016 book on housing insecurity, “Evicted.” (Some of his staff have.)
One senator asked Carson for his thoughts on the Housing First approach to ending homelessness (which dictates that you have to get a roof over someone’s head before a person can address problems like addiction or unemployment), and Carson said he’s seen it work. “I know of one individual who was chronically homeless and having a very difficult time with substance abuse,” he said, “who through that program not only became employed but was able to purchase their own home.”
Carson called the Fair Housing Act “one of the best pieces of legislation we’ve had,” and said he’d “enforce the laws of the land” when it comes to protecting Americans from housing discrimination. His take on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, the 2015 HUD rule that requires cities receiving federal housing funds to demonstrate that their policies don’t make segregation worse, was less enthusiastic. He said his views on AFFH have been distorted, but he started his answer with a seeming quibble with the rule’s intentionality.
The act says that we want people who are receiving HUD grants to look around and see if they find anything that looks like discrimination. And then we want them to come up with a solution on how to solve the problem. They’re not responding to people saying there’s a problem. They’re saying go and look for a problem, and then give us a solution.
He continued on to criticize what he sees as a top-down approach.
What I believe to be the case is we have people sitting around desks in Washington, D.C., deciding on how things should be done, telling mayors and commissioners and people, ‘you need to build this place right here, and you need to put these kind of people at.’ … I do have a problem with people on high dictating [integration] when they don’t know anything about what’s going on in the area. We have local HUD officials and we have people who can assess what the problems are in their area, and working with local officials, can come up with much better solutions than a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter program from people in Washington, D.C.
Later in the hearing, another senator pointed out that AFFH is actually very much about community- and city-driven solutions to housing segregation (read this for a good report on Philadelphia’s efforts on the rule so far).
Community Development Block Grants
More than one senator asked about HUD’s CDBG program, which supports economic development in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. As Next City’s Oscar Perry Abello recently reported, “CDBG funding has decreased almost every year since 1995, but its track record of results seems to fit with the notion of creating an environment with less dependency on the social safety net. In 2013, nearly 28,000 Americans found new permanent jobs or were able to retain their jobs at businesses that benefited from CDBG economic development activities.”
Of the program, Carson said, “I have been talking to mayors across this country and housing authorities, and they all say … they appreciate the grant money, but they have to jump through too many hoops and there’s too much red tape.” He said one solution is updating the agency’s computer systems: “By utilizing the IT technology to eliminate a lot of waste and fraud, I think we could really get a lot of bang for our buck.”
You can watch the whole hearing below.
Janine is Next City’s executive editor.