Another Learn-on-the-Job Cabinet Nominee: Ben Carson to Run HUD
Policy + Politics

Another Learn-on-the-Job Cabinet Nominee: Ben Carson to Run HUD

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

By turning to Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, President-elect Donald Trump has nominated a prominent retired brain surgeon with absolutely no government administrative experience. But Trump’s former rival has strong conservative views on the limits to assisting economically depressed inner cities and the housing market more generally.

While initially rejecting Trump’s entreaties to join his new administration, Carson said last week on his Facebook page, “After serious discussions with the Trump transition team, I feel that I can make a significant contribution -- particularly to making our inner cities great for everyone. We have much work to do in strengthening every aspect of our nation and ensuring that both our physical infrastructure and our spiritual infrastructure is solid.”

Related: Carson Accepts Trump's Offer to Head U.S. Housing Department

His nomination will be highly controversial because of his dearth of experience in the highly technical field of housing finance, housing law, and urban development, prompting even one of his closest advisers, Armstrong Williams, to acknowledge, “He’s never run an agency and it’s a lot to ask.” 

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) tweeted today that Carson was “a great choice” to head HUD, while House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said that Carson was “disturbingly unqualified” for the position.

Solomon Greene, a housing expert with the Urban Institute, said today that while the post of HUD secretary is viewed by many as one of the “less glamorous or high profile cabinet picks,” it nonetheless is extraordinarily important “particularly at a time like now when we are facing a growing housing affordability gap as well as really entrenched poverty, especially in urban areas.”

“It’s hard for many of us to get a sense of what Carson would do as a HUD secretary because he doesn’t have a track record or experience working on housing issues,” Greene added.

Carson, 65, an African-American who rose to prominence with a compelling story about overcoming poverty growing up in Detroit, has espoused a minimalist view of what the federal government, including agencies like HUD, should be doing to encourage home ownership and rental, especially among low-income minorities.

Carson is no fan of what he considers Obama’s “tortured reading of the Fair Housing laws…to ‘affirmatively promote’ fair housing, even in the absence of explicit discrimination.” He charges the administration with regulation overreach designed to break down racial barriers by forcing municipalities to build low-income housing in wealthy neighborhoods, comparing them to the worse efforts at social engineering.  And he has been highly critical of what he has deemed runaway government spending and tax breaks to promote housing policy.

Although there is virtually no chance of this ever happening, Carson campaigned for the GOP presidential nomination advocating a major overhaul of the federal tax code that would eliminate the highly popular deduction on home mortgage interest for tens of millions of American homeowners. The deduction, which enables primarily middle and upper-income families to write off part of their monthly mortgage payments, for decades has been instrumental in expanding the housing market and costs the government about $70 billion annually in forgone revenue.

Related: Republican Ben Carson Opts Against Job in Trump Cabinet

Carson also declared war on wasteful government spending contribution to the $19.9 trillion gross national debt and vowed to dramatically scale back or eliminate a “hodgepodge” of federal programs. Those presumably include subsidies for public housing and Section 8, a housing choice voucher program that assists very low-income families, the elderly and disabled people attempting to purchase decent housing.

“The federal government has been living beyond its means, and it is time to tighten the belt and make wholesale reforms,” especially means-tested welfare initiatives, Carson wrote in a campaign document called “Prescription for a Responsible and Efficient Government.”

Carson’s call for reducing government involvement in the housing market extends to his support for privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two giant semi-public entities engaged in insuring mortgages. Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s nominee to become the next Treasury secretary, said last week that privatizing the financially troubled Fannie and Freddie is “right up there on the top-10 list of things we’re going to get done.”

HUD is a sprawling bureaucracy providing housing and community development assistance and access to “fair and equal housing.” Carson would be in charge of an agency with more than 8,400 employees and an annual budget of roughly $50 billion. Traditionally, presidents have turned to candidates with substantial experience in the arcane world of housing, or who are highly knowledgeable in government management and budgeting.

Julian Castro, President Obama’s current HUD director, is a former mayor of San Antonio mayor who garnered kudos for helping to revitalize that Texas city’s downtown. His predecessor, Shaun Donovan, had been the commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration and the New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development prior to coming to Washington. Donovan went on from HUD to become director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Trump’s nomination of Carson must be confirmed by the Senate, and the celebrated brain surgeon is likely to face some tough questioning by the Democrats. Carson, a skilled brain surgeon who practiced for years at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore before becoming an author and highly acclaimed speaker, is the first African-American to be selected for Trump’s emerging Cabinet.

Related: HUD Gives $37 Million in Housing Subsidies to the Wrong People

"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 today. "Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities."

However, during the 2016 GOP primary, Trump repeatedly mocked Carson as having “super low energy” and questioned his temperament and qualifications to serve as commander in chief. Carson surprised many early in the campaign with his growing popularity and mass appeal to conservative and Tea Party Republicans. He began to falter after a series of blunders and bizarre statements, including standing by a statement he made to a group of conservatives in 2013 comparing Obamacare to slavery and insisting that the Egyptian pyramids were used to store grain.

Carson dropped out of the Republican presidential campaign after disappointing finishes on Super Tuesday, March 4. He later set aside his differences with Trump and joined New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another failed GOP candidate, in endorsing Trump for the nomination.

Related: HUD Execs Flagged for Ethics, Lobbying Violations

Even before Trump announced his choice of Carson on Monday, some housing experts and advocacy groups sounded the alarm about the possibility of Carson undercutting years of progress in promoting housing rights and benefits for blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

“We hope that, if confirmed, Ben Carson will join a long line of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretaries in trying to meet the national housing goal that ‘every American family should be able to afford a decent home in a suitable environment,’ regardless of the color of their skin,” Greene, Margery Austin Turner and two other Urban Institute housing experts wrote last week.

“It would be a tragedy to turn back the clock now. “We know that every year a child lives in a distressed neighborhood reduces their earnings as adults. Our country cannot be great if we squander the potential of any of our children.