Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
CarsonWatch.org, that’s who. The HUD secretary’s every move is being closely monitored online by a confederation of housing advocates.
With little fanfare, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson visited the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex last week, making it the second stop on his national “listening tour.” Carson made public appearances with both Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. He toured neighborhoods, housing complexes, parks, and facilities across the area. Presumably, he got in some listening.
Where this tour is taking him next—and what people are telling him on the ground, in unscripted conversations—is not public knowledge. (HUD has not responded to CityLab’s requests for an interview.) The announcement of Carson’s trip to Texas came just hours before his first public event there.
“You could be forgiven for not knowing [about his visit to Dallas–Fort Worth], since he and his staff have avoided widely advertising the trip,” writes Omar Narvaez, a trustee for Dallas County Schools and a candidate for the Dallas City Council. “This may have something to do with the fact that Secretary Carson would rather not have to answer to the public and defend the outrageous budget cuts he and Donald Trump are trying to ram through Congress.”
Narvaez’s writeup of Carson’s listening-tour stop was posted on CarsonWatch, a website tracking every step of the enigmatic neurosurgeon-turned-cabinet-secretary. CarsonWatch—it practically begs for an exclamation mark to balance the secretary’s famously sleepy style—aims to track how Carson’s public assurances and private appearances match up with the Trump administration’s promise to cut HUD’s budget by $6 billion. The effort is the brainchild of Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization, and it may represent an American first: a watchdog site devoted entirely to the doings of a single cabinet member.
“Our goal is to hold Secretary Carson and Trump accountable for their actions,” says Guillermo Mayer, president and CEO of Public Advocates. “We plan to monitor HUD closely and communicate with housing activists on the ground in different cities to help them organize responses to decisions that impact them. We’re teaming up with lawyers. We’re lawyers ourselves.”
Public Advocates is running CarsonWatch with the support of three different housing and justice organizations: the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and PolicyLink. Each organization is contributing a different network of experts and lawyers who, Mayer says, will help keep an eye on HUD under the Trump administration.
“We’re going to be watching for and exposing signs of ethics violations as well as attempted rollbacks in civil rights protections and enforcement, or cuts to housing programs like the ones that have been announced through the budget outline,” Mayer says.
So far, CarsonWatch has been highlighting moments of hypocrisy from the listening tour, such as when Secretary Carson “praise[d] effective HUD programs during his visits that the Trump budget proposes to eliminate with his consent.” Those discrepancies have not been hard to spot. On March 16, Carson appeared with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in a photo-op for a ribbon cutting for a senior living center. As Next City notes, more than 70 percent of the funding that led to this development originated with HUD—funds that would disappear from Trump’s budget.
On social media, advisors to Carson have trumpeted his meetings with grantees who have received funds from HOME and the Community Development Block Grant program, two HUD funding streams targeted by the Trump administration. For his part, Carson told housing leaders on Monday that the administration would balance cuts to CDBG and other HUD programs by including housing aid as part of the as-yet-to-be-determined infrastructure bill.
“I don’t understand why you would play a shell game like that,” says Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project. “[CDGB] is only one part of the budget cuts that they’re talking about. CDGB is the most flexible of the funding, but it’s also the least targeted at the lowest-income people.”
Diane Glauber, co-director for fair housing and community development at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says that her organization has worked closely with HUD over the last decade, especially in implementing the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing tool. The Lawyers’ Committee is concerned with how budget cuts at HUD will affect communities of color, but also about how the U.S. Department of Justice will enforce the Fair Housing Act—and its contributions to CarsonWatch will likely fall along those vectors.
“We have lots of friends there [at HUD]. We think they’ve done some really good work,” Glauber says. “We by no means look at HUD as an adversarial relationship. We want to make sure that people are paying attention to what’s going on and how Carson and certainly the new administration might stop some of the enormous gains that we’ve seen over the last few years with fair housing and community development.”
What shape will those contributions take? It depends in part on what Carson does. Mayer says that one goal all four organizations hold for CarsonWatch is to make sure that housing is on the lips of activists, advocates, and politicians who are rallying in new ways under the Trump administration. In other words, he wants to make sure “the Resistance” remembers affordable and fair housing, alongside longstanding activist priorities such as the environment.
“You’re really seeing elected officials define themselves more starkly,” Mayer says. “For housing advocates at the local level, this is a really good opportunity to finally win on progressive housing policies. Most of the inequality has been baked in for decades.”