In mid-November of 2016, Ben Carson’s business manager, Armstrong Williams, told a Retuers reporter that Carson was turning down President-elect Trump’s offer to join his Cabinet, because his life had “not prepared him to be a Cabinet secretary.” Less than a month later, Carson was slated to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Trump’s administration, one of the most consequential Cabinet positions – not just for homeowners, but for real estate agents, as well.
The announcement of Trump’s selection of Carson as HUD secretary, and moreover Carson’s agreement to do it, took many off guard – not only because of Carson’s own admitted ill preparedness, but because of his work history. Carson is a celebrated neurosurgeon and a best-selling author, but he has no overt experience in the housing space, and his views on the topic are rather ill defined.
What we do know comes from his past commentary on the subject.
Carson has been a vocal proponent of large cuts to public assistance programs, saying that housing subsidies create government dependencies. And in a 2015 op-ed in the Washington Times, he likened President Obama’s efforts through HUD to desegregate neighborhoods to “failed socialist experiments.”
Carson’s comments raise several questions on how he would run HUD, given that a large part of the department’s multi-billion-dollar mission is to extend aid and fight housing inequality; during Carson’s Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 12, many of those questions were asked.
Will he cut HUD’s budget?
When asked if he would advocate for HUD’s $47-billion budget, Carson assured the committee he would. But he also assured spending cuts.
“We can never seem to cut, because people have their programs and they say, ‘This one is sacred, and this one is not,’” Carson said, urging a need to consider “fiscal responsibility.”
When Sen. Thom Tillis (R, N.C.) asked pointedly if there were any HUD programs Carson saw as “sacred cows,” he responded, “I’ve been studying it carefully and I haven’t seen one yet.”
Carson went on to agree with Tillis that the number of people currently supported by HUD’s housing programs was “unacceptable.
Still, when pressed on specifics, Carson was reluctant to offer any proposed cuts, and instead pledged to maintain a number of programs.
Will he end safety-net programs?
“Safety net programs are important,” Carson said. “I would never advocate abolishing them without having an alternative for people to follow.”
He later added that people had long “distorted” his comments on housing assistance programs. Carson clarified that while he supports aid programs – such as the rental assistance program, which he described as “essential” – HUD’s increased role as a safety net has led Americans to redefine the department’s mission as strictly “putting roofs over the heads of poor people.”
He added, “It has the ability to be so much more than that.”
So who will be helped by HUD?
One of the more tense moments, in what was an otherwise genteel hearing, was the exchange Carson had with Massachusetts’ Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren.
It started with the senator asking what she prefaced as a “simple yes or no” question: “Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the president-elect or his family?”
Carson did not give a yes or a no, but rather explained to Warren that his leadership would be morally driven. And when she did not accept that as an answer, and further refined her question to address only whether Trump would indirectly benefit from government loans and grants issued to businesses in which he may have a stake, Carson got flustered. In what will surely go down as one of the more amusing gaffs of these confirmation hearings, Carson reassured: “It will not be my intention to do anything to benefit any American.” He scrambled to clarify that under him, HUD would work to benefit all Americans, and not a select few.
Ultimately, after more back and forth, Carson refused to guarantee Warren that no Trump business would benefit from HUD money. He said that it would be illogical to defund an “extraordinarily good program” just because someone, meaning Trump, would “gain $10 from it.” Though, during later questioning by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D, Ohio), Carson agreed to work with senators to identify businesses tied to Trump, and then further committed to reporting on any future dealings HUD has with those businesses.
Will he take HUD out of the inequality equation?
One of the biggest fear some senators have about Carson is the perceived threat he poses to HUD’s mission to help eliminate housing inequality. According to some interpretations of his past comments, particularly his 2015 op-ed in the Washington Times, Carson is a staunch opponent of government intervention in such matters. But Carson disagreed. He said his views on Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule has “been distorted by many people.”
“We have people sitting around desks in Washington, D.C., deciding on how things should be done,” he said. “I do not have any problem with affirmative action or integration … But I do have a problem with people on high dictating it when they have no idea what’s going on in an area.”
Will the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage survive without government help?
Sen. Jon Tester (D, Mont.) posed a question to Carson that echoed the concerns of lenders and financial experts the country over: is it possible for lenders to offer a 30-year mortgage without government assistance?
Carson responded that he thinks it is possible, but when pushed to explain how, he deflected specifics by evoking “the private sector,” ultimately admitting that “you can’t do it overnight.”
He added, “We can’t do it in a haphazard way. We can’t do it in an ideological way.”
Sen. Tester didn’t share Carson’s optimism. “Truthfully, I don’t see how it can happen,” he said. “I can tell you it’s going to be difficult.”
The housing market is going to look much different under a secretary Carson.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ben_Carson_(25628355165).jpg