Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said that he would place a “big emphasis on fairness for everybody” during his first remarks to HUD’s staff Monday, warning that there will be “no favorites for anybody, no extra” in his approach to housing policy — rousing lingering uncertainties about how public assistance programs will be managed under his watch.
“One of the things you will notice in this department under my leadership is that there will be a very big emphasis on fairness for everybody,” Carson told the staff. “Everything that we do, every policy; no favorites for anybody, no extra for anybody, but complete fairness for everybody. Because that is what the founders of this nation had in mind, and if you read the Constitution, it becomes very clear that that was the goal.”
In his remarks — just days after he was confirmed to lead the department — Carson lauded career civil servants at HUD who he said have shown a dedication to “really helping the downtrodden, helping the people in our society to be able to climb the ladder.” He stressed that the department has an obligation to “reject the purveyors of division and hatred that exist out there.”
But he gave few insights into key concerns among housing activists and HUD staffers — including whether the Trump administration will seek to curb housing subsidies given to low-income Americans, for example, or what he thinks HUD’s role is in compelling communities across the country to promote racially integrated neighborhoods. Urban policy experts and fair-housing activists have watched closely for clues as to how Carson would approach the job, with many expressing concern that his lack of experience or his strident conservative ideology would make him inherently antagonistic to HUD’s mission.
Carson has spoken disapprovingly of government dependence in the past. During his confirmation hearings in January, for example, Carson suggested that he believes LGBT people do not need anti-discrimination protections, which he called “extra rights.”
In introducing himself to the staff, Carson spoke about his background growing up with a single mother with uncertain housing — layering his conservative principles and disapproval of government dependence onto his own story of upward mobility. “[My mother] worked so hard, two, three jobs at a time. She didn't like the idea of being dependent,” Carson said. “She always made it clear to us how much of our future was within our own hands, no matter what anybody else said.”
Carson made several appeals to smaller government as he spoke: “We recognize that when we treat people fairly, the need to regulate their lives … becomes much, much smaller because people don't feel that they're being treated unjustly.”
Carson’s remarks to the staff oftentimes took the cadence of a motivational speech, delivered with the same soft-spoken but resolute tone he has used at speaking engagements across the country for decades, including last year when he ran for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. “This is America. This used to be known as the can-do society, not the what-can-you-do-for-me society,” he said. “And there is a lot that we can do if we are simply willing to reach outside of ourselves and recognize that each person, all of our fellow many, all of our fellow Americans, we are one.”
At one point, Carson walked the audience through his “THINK BIG” philosophy to “unleash potential,” the topic of one of his several books. “T is for talent, which God gave to every person,” he began, going on to assign a principle to each letter. In another instance, Carson asked those in attendance to raise their hands to “take the niceness pledge.”
“Just raise your hand, everybody raise your hand,” he said, as the staff obeyed. “Now what did you just pledge to do? Be nice to every single person you encounter for one week, including your spouse!”
But Carson also drew a swift backlash on social media Monday for referring to slaves who were forcefully brought to the United States as “immigrants,” a comment he made while lauding the determination of past generations of migrants who entered the country in search of a better life.
“That's what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less,” he said. “But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”
Carson also spoke briefly about finding new ways to partner with the private sector to find solutions to homelessness and affordable housing availability.
“We don't necessarily have to always depend on the government and government financing,” he said when asked about such partnerships by a staffer during a question-and-answer session. “There's a lot more money outside of government than there is inside of government, although there's some people who would like to change that, but anyway, I won't get into that.”
“Providing opportunities that are win-win situations, that’s how we get more of the private sector involved in governmental programs,” he added.
At the end of the town hall, one staffer stood up and thanked Carson for his speech, telling him that many employees had been afraid about how the Trump administration would prioritize HUD programs. She said his speech had reassured her that he is invested in HUD's mission.
Carson said that he will go on a listening tour as secretary in the coming weeks, to find what is working in housing policy and what is not working. “The way I look at it, all the things that have happened leading up to this point are steppingstones to allow us to get to that next place in our society,” he said.
“There's always a lot of different perspectives and one of the things that I have found is when you have divergent perspectives, if you can get those people to sit down and talk to each other, they will frequently be able to come up with extremely good solutions,” he said. “I believe in always giving the first pass to the people who are actually involved as opposed to imposing upon them from above.”