Ben Carson on Thursday detailed his vision for the Department of Housing and Urban Development: one that integrates government assistance programs with “holistic” solutions and greater involvement of businesses and faith groups.
Carson, speaking before a generally friendly Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, repeatedly suggested that the private sector should play a larger role in addressing poverty and systemic inequities, investing in “human capital” as a means of increasing quality of life and profits.
“The programs that have been enacted in HUD over the years, you know, they’re good programs,” Carson said. “But in and of themselves they’re not bringing about the elevation of large numbers of people. And that’s what we’re looking for. We don’t want it to be a way of life, we want it to be a Band-Aid and a springboard to move forward.”
In another instance, Carson said he would like to work with faith and business groups to help people whose residences are worth less than their mortgages.
“The place where there is a lot of money is the private sector. What we have to concentrate on is helping the private sector to recognize that, in the long run, the private sector does better when we develop our people,” Carson said.
Carson, during his opening remarks, ditched prepared text and spoke at length about his upbringing: his “desperately poor” childhood living in “dilapidated” housing “with rats and roaches.” He credited his mother, a domestic worker, with instilling conservative ideas about self-reliance.
“Her strong desire was not to be dependent on anybody else,” he said.
The hearing was relatively lighthearted, with Carson asking if he could vote on his nomination and comparing the gravel-voiced Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to the TV detective Columbo. But there were tense moments between Carson and some of the committee’s Democrats. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who also grew up poor, asked Carson if he “truly” believed in HUD’s mission based on the rhetoric he had used as a presidential candidate. He also pressed Carson on whether he believes the government should continue to provide rental assistance.
“I think the rental assistance program is essential,” Carson said. “What I’ve said, if you’ve been reading my writing, is that when it comes to entitlement programs, it is cruel and unusual punishment to cut those programs for providing an alternative route.”
Brown and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pressed Carson on whether he would guarantee that neither Trump nor members of his family would personally profit from federal dollars through their various housing assets.
“It would not be my intention to benefit any American. It’s for all Americans,” Carson responded. “I will manage things in a way that benefits the American people.”
Carson’s testimony marked his most extensive comments on housing and urban development. Urban policy experts were closely parsing Carson’s remarks and responses to lawmakers for clues about his vision on the government’s role in housing policy, which he rarely spoke about publicly before his nomination.
Repeatedly, Carson and the committee’s Republicans suggested that faster economic growth could reduce the number of people who needed HUD’s programs. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) cited his state’s cutbacks to unemployment insurance as a model.
“What’s the best thing you can do for someone in government assistance?” Tillis asked.
“Get them off of it,” Carson said.
“Get them a job, absolutely,” Tillis said.
When pressed on his view of government assistance, Carson said that Americans should invest in one another and dismissed people who “imply . . . that I don’t want to do anything for poor people.”
Carson did not, however, elaborate on the extent to which government assistance should be made available.
“I know some have distorted what I’ve said about government. But I believe government is important. And it is there, I believe, to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What has happened too often is that people who seemingly mean well have promoted things that do not encourage development of any innate talent in people,” he said. “Hence we have generation after generation living in dependent situations. It’s not that they’re bad people, it’s that this is what they’ve been given, and it’s all they know in some cases.”
Carson also said that, if confirmed, he would like to go on a “listening tour,” speaking first to career civil servants at HUD and then going out to communities throughout the country to talk to people who have “boots on the ground.”
Trump’s decision to nominate Carson as HUD secretary was swiftly blasted by critics when it was announced in early December. They argued that he lacked the expertise and experience necessary to run the department. Carson has no experience in government outside of his 2016 presidential run in the GOP primary.
“People have raised a lot of concerns, and those concerns stem from his own statements. He said, basically, that he’s not qualified for HUD or for government service. So most people I hear ask, ‘How did they convince him to take the job?’ ” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said in a recent interview.
Carson initially declined to join the administration, even as he was being considered as secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Education Department. “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency,” Carson’s close ally, Armstrong Williams, told the Hill in November. “The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
But Trump transition officials and Carson’s defenders say that the neurosurgeon’s personal experiences, rising from poverty in his childhood to the top of his profession, gives him a unique perspective on urban life and economic issues.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who sits on the Banking Committee, said that he met with Carson several weeks ago and was impressed. Shelby praised Carson for accepting the nomination and said he thinks he will do a good job leading the department.
“He’s very smart. Somebody said, ‘Well, he doesn’t know a lot about housing.’ I said, ‘Look at the shambles it’s in now, public housing.’ I said, ‘Maybe we need to start anew,’ ” Shelby said.
Morial, the former Democratic mayor of New Orleans, said Carson was well respected for his personal accomplishments — particularly among urban and minority youths — but said he remained unsure about Carson’s vision for the department.
“We know Dr. Carson as Dr. Carson. We have honored Dr. Carson as Dr. Carson, not as presidential candidate or politician Ben Carson,” Morial said.
Fair housing advocates on the left are also worried that Carson will bring to HUD an ideological disposition inherently antagonistic to the department’s goals.
Those concerns are centered on his criticism of a 2015 federal regulation, known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, one of the few public statements he has made on urban policy in recent years. The rule strengthened HUD’s ability to promote racially and economically integrated communities; at its core, the final rule compels communities that receive grants from HUD to take “meaningful actions” to intervene where there are high concentrations of poverty or racial segregation.
In an op-ed published shortly after the final rule was released, Carson accused the government of “social engineering.”
“These attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse. There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” Carson wrote at the time.
Betsy Julian, a former senior HUD official and founder of the Inclusive Communities Project, said she hopes Carson won’t be “hijacked by an ideological agenda.”
“I hope when he starts talking to people, the career people involved in this thing, that he comes to understand what an important tool it will be for him to carry out the mission of HUD,” Julian said. “It’s a very important piece of federal regulation that was thoughtfully done, and I’m not a big fan of federal regulation. I hope he’ll understand that this is not just a good idea, it’s the law.”