One week ago, former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson pulled his name out of the cabinet lottery, saying that he was unqualified to run a government agency.
On Tuesday afternoon, however, President-elect Donald Trump floated Carson’s name on Twitter. Not for secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the position that Carson preemptively declined, but for secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Carson’s nomination took housing advocates by surprise. He has no experience in housing policy and has shown little interest in the subject. But just before noon on Wednesday, Carson tweeted that an “announcement is forthcoming,” linking to a post on Facebook that reads, “I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly to making our inner cities great for everyone.”
“I am astounded at the suggestion that Ben Carson would be nominated to serve as HUD secretary,” says Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “HUD is among the most important federal agencies tasked with ensuring compliance with the Fair Housing Act, and creating affordable and inclusive communities.”
Clarke adds, “Carson has described himself as unqualified to hold a federal bureaucratic position and noted that in such a role he would essentially be a ‘fish out of water.’”
If Carson accepts the job—he is reportedly mulling it over—then he would not be the first secretary at HUD with no experience in housing. A career housing-policy expert like Shaun Donovan, who served as secretary from 2009 to 2014, is the exception rather than the rule at HUD. The job turned former Florida Senator Mel Martínez, who served as HUD secretary under President George W. Bush, into a committed housing advocate. Ultimately, most presidents have appointed the position based on loyalty or personal relationships, although that’s been less the case in recent years.
President-elect Trump’s decision comes as a surprise in part because the transition team had already suggested several strong candidates, among them Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, and Pamela Patenaude, the president of the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families. Trump also reportedly considered Robert Astorino, the executive of Westchester County, New York, who opposes HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing policy, as well as former New York Representative Rick Lazio.
Any one of those appointments would have indicated that the president-elect takes the job seriously—perhaps Astorino most of all, since he wants to gut AFFH, a decades-old mandate to desegregate that came into full effect under President Barack Obama. Taken altogether, the suite of potential picks suggested a policy-oriented approach. But nothing about Carson’s candidacy suggests that Trump cares about HUD, up to and including his decision to announce the offer to Carson over Twitter.
Carson did address housing in a 2015 editorial he wrote for The Washington Times. In that column, Carson describes the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule as “social engineering” and compares it the school-busing efforts associated with integration. Carson also condemns the Supreme Court’s decision on disparate impact as more “social engineering,” lumping these efforts to desegregate housing in with explicitly discriminatory housing practices such as redlining and restrictive covenants: “all attempts at social engineering.”
“To turn away from [disparate impact] would undo strong efforts that have taken place more recently with the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule to address some of the inequality and past exclusionary housing policies that have created such segregated communities,” says Melora Hiller, CEO for Grounded Solutions Network.
In September, Hiller’s organization addressed a letter to outgoing HUD Secretary Julián Castro, calling attention to future priorities for the department. A focus on permanently affordable housing, shared equity homeownership, and renter asset-building strategies were among the platform items. Those could be focal points during Carson’s tenure, but Hiller worries that the Trump administration will emphasize scaling back the department—something that is easier to do without a fierce housing advocate defending it.
“All the existing programs that we’re so dependent on for building affordable housing in this country could be thrown in the air or dismantled,” Hiller says. “Decades and decades of programs could be dismantled.”
Terri Ludwig, president and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, says that her organization began working with both the Democratic and Republican transition teams before the election on “immediate wins” that the next administration could pursue. She identifies the low income housing tax credit (a public–private tool that generates most new low-income housing in the U.S.) and the new markets tax credit (used to build amenities like daycare centers and charters schools in low-income communities) as workable priorities that will generate jobs and drive economic growth.
“I would hope [President-elect Trump’s] priorities would include housing,” Ludwig says. “More than one in four families who rent their homes are what we call housing insecure, paying half of their income toward housing costs.”
Carson has only ever indicated an interest in reversing federal efforts to desegregate. As the director of HUD, Carson might scale back the reach of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. Or he might do nothing. His own admitted lack of preparedness suggests that his undersecretaries will play significant roles. An Assistant Secretary Lazio or Patenaude might be a better indication of the future of HUD than a Secretary Carson on his own.
For the future of fair housing, a blank slate is a better bet than a committed ideological opponent of housing desegregation. But a leader with a lack of experience exposes the department to harm. Directors have abused HUD in the past: Samuel Pierce, who served as HUD secretary during the Reagan administration, was later investigated by Congress and the U.S. Office of the Independent Counsel for influence trading and political favoritism. Secretary Pierce used HUD funds as slush funds, awarding low-income housing grants to Reagan donors and lobbyists. Two assistant secretaries and two executive assistants to Pierce were later charged and convicted in the HUD rigging scandal.
While there’s no reason to think that Carson would make a venal HUD secretary, corruption is the watchword of the Trump administration. Worse for the nation, perhaps, might be a do-nothing secretary. The U.S. is in the grip of a staggering affordable-housing crisis, and missteps at HUD could expose thousands of vulnerable families to despair and homelessness.
“It is unfathomable that Carson would survive a Senate confirmation hearing for HUD, one of the most critical cabinet positions,” Clarke says. “Federal agencies such as HUD must be led by qualified individuals bearing experience with or commitment to the principles underlying our nation's federal housing laws and policies.”
This post has been updated.