Several Democratic senators denounced potential cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a sharply worded letter Friday to Secretary Ben Carson, calling the budget reductions being considered by the Trump administration “unconscionable” and warning that they could pose health risks.
The White House is considering cutting more than $6 billion from HUD’s 2018 budget, according to preliminary budget documents obtained by The Washington Post this week. The proposal would eliminate billions of dollars from public-housing maintenance funds — used to fix vital equipment such as toilets, water pumps and heating equipment — and eliminate community development grants entirely. Such grants are used to fund a range of services, such as building affordable housing, meal assistance and first-time homeownership programs.
Friday's pointed letter to Carson pins responsibility squarely on the secretary, who indicated during his confirmation hearing two months ago that he would not seek drastic cuts to existing HUD programs. Though Carson was probably not involved in the initial budget deliberations, because of a delay in his confirmation as secretary, he will have to oversee any budget cuts the administration makes at HUD.
“If this reported budget stands, you will most certainly be presiding over an unprecedented attack on the health of some our most vulnerable Americans,” reads the letter. “It cannot stand and, if you are to remain true to the testimony you gave under oath, it must not.”
The letter, delivered to the department Friday evening, marks the first flash of resistance among congressional Democrats to significant cuts at HUD. It was signed by several senators on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, including Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).
Brown, the ranking Democrat on the committee, voted in favor of Carson’s confirmation during the full Senate vote this month, to the disappointment of activists who said Carson was unqualified for the job. Brown defended his decision, citing assurances by Carson that he would uphold the core mission of the department.
Those assurances were repeatedly turned against Carson in the statement Friday.
“You testified to your understanding of the real impacts that substandard housing have on the health and opportunities of children and their families, in particular how it is far more costly to ignore lead hazards than to spend the money to abate them,” the senators wrote. “A cut of $1.3 billion — nearly 70 percent — in the public housing repair budget will mean more children, families, elderly, and individuals with disabilities will be exposed to mold, lead, and other health hazards.”
The budget documents obtained by The Post — a marked-up budget being passed between HUD and the Office of Management and Budget — show repeated requests by HUD that some maintenance funds and development grants be included in a separate infrastructure package. The administration has discussed putting a massive infrastructure bill before Congress, but the White House has not publicly discussed including housing projects in such a bill.
In the letter, committee members expressed skepticism over that solution.
“The suggestion that some HUD funds will be addressed as part of an infrastructure package provides no assurance whatsoever,” the letter said. “The Administration has made clear that infrastructure is not an immediate priority, and that it hopes to finance its plans through tolls and other offsets.”