Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
During a brief and jocular confirmation hearing, the retired neurosurgeon gave few answers that suggested he believes in a strong, affirmative role for the department he’s been selected to lead.
Ben Carson made an unfortunate blunder during his Senate confirmation hearing to run the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) wanted a yes-or-no from Carson about potential conflicts of interest at the White House. “Can you assure me,” she asked, “that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the president-elect or his family?”
Carson’s answer: “It will not be my intention to do anything to benefit any American.”
A plain flub. Still, some of his better-articulated answers had the same tilt. In a memorable exchange, Senator Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) asked Carson, “What is the best possible thing we can do for someone on government assistance?” The retired neurosurgeon answered, “Get them off of it.”
Over the course of a breezy confirmation hearing that wrapped before lunch, Carson yielded little in the way of specifics about his expectations or goals as HUD secretary. He proposed a “listening tour” of the nation in order to build a “world-class plan for housing in this country.” With a few exceptions, Carson faced friendly fire from members of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, who focused on narrow topics, including veterans housing and exposure to lead paint.
By the end of the confirmation hearing, most of the questions surrounding Carson’s nomination—his qualifications, his plans, his philosophy of government, even his desire to run a cabinet agency—remained a mystery.
On harder questions, Carson mostly demurred. After more prodding from Warren over potential White House conflicts, for example, Carson said that he would do what was right for Americans and that his decisions would be guided by “logic and common sense.” He gave no insight about how HUD would circumnavigate the Trump family’s complex real estate holdings—some of which directly intersect with HUD. To name just one, Jared Kushner, the president-elect’s son-in-law and soon-to-be White House senior advisor, has invested in tens of thousands of distressed apartment units in communities such as Baltimore and Toledo. (Kushner is stepping down as CEO of Kushner Companies and divesting from some of his holdings.)
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the committee’s ranking member, asked Carson early on about his opinion on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, the federal government’s housing desegregation initiative, which took a leap forward under President Barack Obama and HUD Secretary Julián Castro. Carson has previously described AFFH as “social engineering.” To Brown’s question, Carson first objected that the mechanism of AFFH wasn’t local enough. “We have people sitting around desks in Washington, D.C., deciding how things should be done,” he said.
But on further examination, Carson seemed to attack AFFH itself. “My objection is the central dictation of people’s lives,” he said. When the senator brought up an article in The Washington Times written by Carson—a 2015 column in which he attacked federal housing desegregation—Carson said that his opinions had been “distorted by many people.”
One of the biggest questions facing HUD today was largely off the table for the purposes of Carson’s confirmation hearing. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, the federal government’s best financial instrument for spurring the creation of new affordable-housing units, faces an uncertain future under a Republican-led Congress. Even if it is not altered as part of the tax-reform push led by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the utility of the LIHTC program will be diminished in an environment in which corporations pay lower tax rates.
None of the senators asked Carson whether he supports bipartisan legislation to expand the LIHTC program. The bill, supported by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), would expand the LIHTC program by 50 percent. That kind of legislative or policy detail rarely came up during Carson’s hearing.
Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) said that he had a list of six detailed questions on housing policy—on topics ranging from HUD’s Distressed Asset Stabilization Program to housing discrimination enforcement by the U.S. Department of Justice—but he said he would give those questions to Carson to be answered at a later date.
Even at broad strokes, Carson’s answers were murky and, at times, contradictory. He told Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) that he would “absolutely” promise to protect the LGBT community from housing discrimination, even as he reiterated his position that LGBT people do not deserve “extra” rights. The Fair Housing Act does not specifically prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) asked Carson about a presidential campaign promise to cut the budget of every federal agency by 10 percent. Menendez described this plan as a “meat axe, not a neurosurgeon’s knife.” Carson described the rental assistance received by more than 4.5 million households as “essential” and said that it would be “cruel and unusual” to cut this aid before providing an alternative.
But with this answer, and others like it, Carson seemed to suggest that the goal was, in fact, to cut this aid. He told Senator Dean Heller (R-Nevada) that the private sector could play a greater role in assisting the 17 percent of Nevada homeowners with underwater mortgages. On several occasions, he declined to say whether he would push for a larger budget for HUD.
“I don’t think we have to come to the government for everything,” Carson said.