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U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Courtesy: HUD
The secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is quietly one of the most important cabinet positions in any administration. The director oversees the fifth largest budget in the federal government and, through the allocation of billions of dollars, has substantial influence in the functioning of city life.
While there has been a high turnover rate among senior level advisors in President Donald Trump’s administration, Ben Carson, his HUD secretary, has remained there all four years. That makes tracking his impact more straightforward than most in Trump’s cabinet.
From the start, progressive housing advocates were worried about Carson’s appointment — he would be working for a president openly hostile to cities and had no clear qualifications for the job (Carson is a neurosurgeon who grew up in Detroit). Were they right to be concerned?
A largely ineffectual tenure
Yes and no. Carson has lacked competence on some basic functions of his department, like mistaking REOs for Oreos (one is jargon for foreclosed homes, one is a cookie, FYI). That’s embarrassing. But if housing advocates were worried about the ways he could render HUD ineffectual, there are worse traits to possess.
During his tenure, Carson has continually tried to diminish HUD — but to little effect.
“Luckily, most of the things that Secretary Carson has tried to do have been stopped by Congress,” said Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.
Every year, Carson has sought decreases to HUD’s budget. For the 2020 fiscal year, he requested $8.7 billion less in order to eliminate community development block grants, the public housing capital fund and the HOME grant programs — all of which provide billions of dollars for homelessness prevention and low-income housing projects.
But the House and Senate Budget Committees, not the president’s administration, direct the budgetary process. After the president submits the budget, Congress can make amendments to it that don’t require presidential approval. In the end, HUD’s budgetary cuts have been mostly rejected on a bipartisan basis. The Detroit Housing Commission, for example, told The Dig that it’s seen only minimal change in how much it gets from HUD. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority said it’s experienced around 1-3% increases annually, right around the rate of inflation, since Carson took the helm.
Deregulation is another matter
Where Carson’s influence can be felt is in enforcement (or lack thereof) of HUD’s guidelines. The groundbreaking Fair Housing Act, part of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, was intended to eliminate discriminatory housing practices like redlining. While well intentioned, the law has not done enough to integrate neighborhoods or eliminate the enormous gap in housing valuations between Black and White homeowners.
An Obama-era regulation, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, tried to give greater force to the law by requiring municipalities that accept HUD funds to submit plans for decreasing housing segregation. Carson eliminated that rule, calling it “a waste of time.” Trump, in his bid to win suburban voters, praised the rule’s termination, saying that it will reduce low-income housing in the suburbs.
They have instead touted the benefits of Opportunity Zones — which give private developers tax breaks for investing in “distressed” communities — arguing that it shifts the burden of building affordable housing from public to private actors. But Opportunity Zone funds can be put towards almost any building projects and don’t mandate an affordable component, just that they be built in a qualified low-income area.
In Detroit, that includes practically all of the 7.2-mile greater downtown area encompassing the Central Business District, Corktown, New Center, and Eastern Market. Crain’s Detroit Business found that the areas where Opportunity Zones exist “have been some of the same ones where developers and other investors have been flocking anyway as Detroit’s real estate market rebounded.”
Housing activists agree. “Opportunity Zones might result in more market rate housing, but they won’t on a large scale fill the shortage of affordable housing caused by market failure,” Saadian says.
Carson is also trying to get rid of the “disparate impact” rule, which gave renters greater leeway to sue for discrimination, and the “equal access” rule, which if rolled back could allow shelter operators to turn away transgender homeless people.
“These changes erode the goal of fair housing from two directions, making it harder for communities to fight structural segregation and harder for individuals to fight systemic discrimination,” Kriston Capps wrote for CityLab.
The effects of these changes are hard to measure right now. The Detroit Housing Commission, which oversees hundreds of units of affordable housing in Detroit, said it hasn’t had to update any of its regulations because of these changes. MSHDA told The Dig through a spokesperson, “If HUD pulls back their equal access rules for emergency shelter, MSHDA policies will remain the same and will continue to require shelters to provide for equal access.”
An absence of leadership around COVID-19
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Carson’s tenure is his unwillingness to acknowledge the urgency of affordable housing. Currently, only one in four people who are eligible for housing assistance get it, largely due to lack of funding.
COVID-19 will only exacerbate the problem. So far, the pandemic has caused an estimated 8 million Americans to fall into poverty, presaging an impending housing crisis.
“We estimate that 30 million to 40 million renters could lose their home by the end of the year,” Saadian says.
But HUD has barely acted. As part of the CARES Act passed by Congress, those in federally backed housing were temporarily prevented from being evicted. Ultimately, it was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that issued a national moratorium on evictions.
Detroit, with its poorer population and high unemployment rate, is facing an especially precarious situation. Michigan has put in place a program meant to reduce evictions with CARES money, but a robust national response is needed.
HUD is the department best suited for that role. But under Carson, it’s abdicating its duty.