It was only eight days ago that Americans could heave a sigh of relief over the humility of neurosurgeon and GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, whose business manager told the Hill: “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
Times change, people change. On Tuesday, it was reported that Donald Trump had offered Carson the job as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. On Wednesday, Carson hinted in a tweet that he had accepted the nomination.
Speaking with Neil Cavuto on Tuesday, Carson could not feign to be prepared. “What do you know about doing this?” Cavuto asked Carson on Fox News.
His response: He grew up in a city, spent some time in a city, and worked in one. “I know that I grew up in the inner city and spent a lot of time there and dealt with a lot of patients there,” Carson responded. “We cannot have a strong nation if we have weak inner cities.” He alluded to “corruption, graft, and shell games,” and concluded that “we need to start operating things in an effective and efficient way.”
That was the extent of the questioning. The post, apparently, was “one of the offers” that Carson had received from the Trump administration. Obviously, putting the right guy in the HUD job is not a priority.
That’s too bad. To the extent HUD is capable of helping poor Americans obtain and afford good housing, it is uniquely situated to fight against poverty, crime, bad education, poor health, and other negative outcomes tied to instability at home. Under Ben Carson’s watch, HUD will almost certainly contribute as little as possible to that fight.
The department, which was created by Lyndon Johnson during the 1960s, is tasked with managing the Federal Housing Administration, which insures more than $1 trillion in housing loans. It also manages billions of dollars in public housing money, rental assistance, and homelessness programs. It funnels billions into local grants that revitalize affordable housing and public facilities and plays a crucial role in distributing disaster relief funds. It also works with the Department of Justice to investigate claims of discrimination in housing, like the allegation that Trump Management Inc. steered blacks and Puerto Ricans away from white projects in the early 1970s. In the past 20 years, HUD has fought discrimination on behalf of nearly 100,000 Americans.
Recently, HUD has found a sharper tool for fighting for the Fair Housing Act: Forcing beneficiaries of the Community Development Block Grant programs (which include virtually every major American city and county) to demonstrate that they are actively working to enforce fair housing law. Some conservatives have been outraged by a case in Westchester, New York, because they recognize the extent to which wealthy areas have been able to perpetuate socioeconomic (and often racial) segregation in housing while receiving federal money to fight it. The Obama HUD has worked hard to end that hypocrisy; Trump’s HUD would walk the effort back no matter who was in charge.
Carson’s appointment is par for the course for a GOP administration. “Modern GOP presidents have relegated the HUD secretary to an affirmative-action posting, a spot where Republicans like to demonstrate their alleged commitment to diversity in the cabinet, while giving those people authority for all the programs Republicans don't care about, or would like, ideally, to get rid of,” Stephanie Mencimer wrote in Mother Jones in 2008. Ronald Reagan once mistook his own HUD secretary Samuel Pierce, the only black member of his cabinet, for a mayor at a White House reception. Pierce, whose tenure was characterized by corruption and graft, also used his post to staunchly defend cuts to HUD’s housing subsidies.
No one has any idea what Carson thinks about housing policy, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on … what Carson thinks about housing policy.
“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse,” he “wrote” in a 2015 op-ed. In that piece, which in its command of housing policy details stands suspiciously apart from the surgeon’s lack of public statements on those issues, Carson compared the enforcement of fair housing law to desegregation busing. Each was an example of liberal overreach that illustrated the government’s good intentions gone awry. His personal story—his race, his rise from a fading Detroit neighborhood to Johns Hopkins—will give political cover to his efforts to undo HUD’s recent achievements.
The most important function of the department, though, is providing assistance to poor renters. More Americans are renting than at any time in the past half-century; rent burdens in and around major cities have soared.
Ben Carson, whose political life has been premised on the radical power of personal initiative, is unlikely to be a strong spokesman for what an effective HUD needs most: More money to help Americans stay in their homes.